The man accused of spending $823,000 in taxpayer money on a lavish Las Vegas junket for government workers pleaded the Fifth at a House hearing Monday, refusing to answer questions from lawmakers digging into a scandal that has outraged the public and fueled Republican arguments for deeper cuts in wasteful government spending.
Jeff Neely, the regional public building administrator for the General Services Administration, cited his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination during the first of at least four congressional hearings already planned into what Republicans dubbed the Obama's administration's "culture of wasteful spending."
Neely appeared before the committee just as new photos surfaced showing him soaking in a bathtub in a luxurious Vegas hotel suite with a panoramic view. The picture was taken during what was described as a scouting trip before the lavish October 2010 conference that would ultimately lead to a torrent of accusations against the agency.
"There's no wonder that the American people have lost their faith in their government," Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa., said at the hearing. "Asking people to give more of what they have to support a government that wastes more of their money. They resent the fact that a government that tells them they have to pay more of their fair share can't cut back anywhere."
The hearing focused mainly on the actions of Neely, who beyond citing his Fifth Amendment rights sat silently at the witness table. Neely is accused of spending four times the amount budgeted for a GSA conference at the luxurious M Resort in Las Vegas.
Neely authorized spending thousands of dollars on lavish parties, tuxedo rentals, commemorative coins, a mind reader, a clown and, as one lawmaker noted Monday, the purchase of commemorative blackjack dealer vests "so that everyone could feel in character while they were there."
Neely is on paid administrative leave, though his actions led to the firing of several GSA officials and the resignation of GSA Administrator Martha Johnson. Lawmakers on Monday chastised Johnson for agreeing recently to pay Neely a $9,000 bonus even as an investigation of Neely started to uncover evidence of wasteful spending and a culture of intimidation within his department.
"How can you justify a bonus for somebody when you knew he was at the center of this misconduct?" House Government Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., asked Johnson.
Johnson noted that the investigation of Neely wasn't yet finished when she awarded the bonus. She apologized to the committee for the scandal and said she was "extremely aggrieved by the gall of a handful of people to misuse federal tax dollars, twist contracting rules and defile the great name of the General Services Administration."
Congress began its investigation following a scathing April 2 report by GSA Inspector General Brian Miller that detailed the lavish and wasteful conference spending. Miller testified Monday that GSA employees were afraid to report Neely's behavior.
"When someone spoke up, they were, according to a witness, squashed like a bug," Miller said.
The committee's top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, questioned whether the GSA could recoup any money. Letters later made public show the GSA requested reimbursement from Neeley and two other top GSA officials for "wholly inappropriate expenditures." But the total sought was less than $6,000.