POSTED: Tuesday, April 17, 2012 - 9:21am
UPDATED: Tuesday, April 17, 2012 - 9:29am
WASHINGTON (CNN) — A General Services Administration official who first raised questions about overspending at a 2010 Las Vegas conference said Tuesday that she supported the findings of a government investigation and the steps taken in response to the controversy.
"I share your anger and disappointment in GSA's conduct," said Susan Brita, a GSA deputy administrator, at a House Transportation Committee hearing on the scandal that has raised questions of systemic abuses of spending by the government procurement agency.
She said that among the steps taken was seeking reimbursement from GSA officials for government money spent on private parties and other personal benefits they received.
It was Brita's first public comment since the controversy erupted last month with an inspector general's report detailing the GSA's Western Region conference in Las Vegas that cost more than $800,000, as well as an employee reward program that violated government policies.
Coming in an election year, the scandal has become a political focal point, with Republicans seeking to frame it as as a reflection of big government abuse while Democrats say the problem involved a few bad players rather than a systemic rot.
Committee Chairman Jeff Denham, R-California, opened Tuesday's hearing by asserting that the inappropriate actions in the inspector general's report may go well beyond the GSA.
"The purpose of this committee is to talk about the systemic problem: how deep it goes, the corruption, the fraud, the waste," Denham said. "It is not within the Western Region but within GSA as a whole and possibly within other agencies."
The panel's ranking Democrat, Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia, said that as bad as the problem was, the system designed to uncover such wrongdoing worked as intended, as shown by the inspector general's report and the hearing.
"I am perhaps more shocked and saddened than most because I've sat on the subcommittee for more than 20 years and by and large have found GSA appointed officials and civil servants alike ... to be among the most dedicated federal employees," said Norton, the capital's delegate in Congress.
Denham, however, described the matter as involving "the distrust of the American public and its government."
"This is about the waste of taxpayer dollars, and if you can sense my anger and frustration, you should see it at home, where we have got double-digit unemployment, the highest foreclosure rate in the nation, people out of work -- twice the national average," Denham said, accusing the GSA of stonewalling congressional investigators in an effort to hide the issue from the public.
At a similar hearing Monday before the House Oversight Committee, the GSA official at the center of the controversy claimed his Fifth Amendment rights against self-recrimination, while his former boss said she mourned her departure from public service over the controversy.
Jeff Neely, the General Services Administration official who organized the Las Vegas conference, repeatedly refused to answer questions Monday, saying more than five times: "I respectfully decline to answer any questions here today based on my Fifth Amendment constitutional privileges."
Neely declined to appear at Tuesday's hearing on the same grounds, Denham said.
The controversy involving a normally obscure federal agency has become politically toxic after reports and video clips of the lavish 2010 conference in Las Vegas were released. The revelation has prompted taxpayer indignation, embarrassed the administration and put a spotlight on wasteful spending by the GSA, which handles government real estate and other non-military procurement.
On Monday, House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa asked why a former congressional aide to President Barack Obama remained in his top job at the GSA when he probably knew of the wrongdoing -- or should have.
In later tough questioning of that official, GSA Chief of Staff Mike Robertson, Issa determined that a lawyer in the White House counsel's office knew of the ongoing investigation of the GSA in the middle of 2011, nine months before the earliest time acknowledged by the administration.
However, Robertson later issued a statement to clarify his testimony to the committee, saying: "I only mentioned in passing the existence of an (inspector general) investigation as I bumped into a White House staffer that I regularly worked with on GSA issues. This was in late May or June of 2011."
Committee members from both parties expressed outrage Monday over the GSA's excessive spending, contracting violations and other abuses cited by the inspector general's report.
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the panel, called the GSA behavior "indefensible and intolerable," taking aim at Neely, a Public Buildings Service regional commissioner for GSA who organized the Las Vegas conference.
"In one e-mail," Cummings began, "Mr. Neely invited personal friends to the conference, writing, and I quote -- and this is simply incredible -- quote: 'We'll get you guys a room near us, and we'll pick up the room tab. Could be a blast.' End of quote. He then went on and wrote this -- 'I know I'm bad, but as Deb and I often say, why not enjoy it while we have it and while we can. Ain't gonna last forever.' End of quote. Well, Mr. Neely, it stops now."
In her opening statement, former GSA Administrator Martha Johnson said she found a badly managed GSA when she took over in 2010 after more than two years of interim leadership.
She added that the Western Region conference at the heart of the problem had become a "raucous, extravagant, arrogant, self-congratulatory event that ultimately belittled federal workers."
When she received a draft of the final inspector general's report outlining the abuses, Johnson said, she started thinking immediately she might have to resign.
Her final decision to step down came "three or four days" before the final report was released in March because she wanted to send a message to the American people that "this was unacceptable, it was appalling and not the norm," said Johnson, who had a long career in public service.
"I will mourn for the rest of my life the loss of my appointment," Johnson said of her resignation.
Johnson stepped down nearly two weeks ago as the Obama administration revealed details of the Western Region convention at a Las Vegas casino.
Videos then surfaced of David Foley, a deputy commissioner of the Public Buildings Service, an arm of the GSA, appearing to mock congressional oversight. In it, he gave a talent show award to an employee whose video featured a rap about spending too much and joking about avoiding investigation.
Additional videos included one that seemed to make fun of President Barack Obama, as well as a fake red carpet ceremony with Neely, a deputy GSA commissioner, boasting that his goal was to make the Las Vegas conference he helped organize "over the top."
Details also emerged of an employee incentive program that violated limits on awards or gifts.
At Monday's hearing, committee members took the witnesses to task over the violations of government regulations and policies cited by the inspector general's report.
In particular, conservative Republican members repeatedly listed the excesses -- more than $6,000 for commemorative coins for conference attendees, $75,000 for a team-building exercise to construct 24 bicycles for underprivileged children, the hiring of a mind reader as entertainment -- as well as bypassing a staff event planner to pay outsiders to prepare the conference and repeated "scouting visits" to Las Vegas by officials and family members.
"I want indictments," said Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-South Carolina. "That's a great way to get people's attention. Not a memo, not a report. An indictment."
Working for the government "is a sacred trust, which you have blown," Gowdy said to the GSA officials. He lamented the culture of waste and extravagance, saying of the team-building exercise that "I hate that you robbed yourself of the satisfaction of knowing what it feels like yourself instead of spending somebody else's money to do it."
The hearing included several harsh exchanges, including when Issa questioned Robertson, a former staffer for Obama in the Senate, about when he first told anyone in the White House of the investigation of GSA.
In a long back-and-forth, Issa tried to narrow Roberton's responses to a specific date and person.
"I communicated to the appropriate people," Robertson initially answered, then acknowledged that he spoke to the White House as part of his regular dealings.
Asked when he first told anyone at the White House about the investigation, Robertson eventually said it was within a few weeks after GSA officials were first notified by the inspector general of a problem in May.
Issa then asked who he told, and Robertson twice said it was an unnamed person in the White House counsel's office before Issa insisted: "What's the name?"
Only then did Robertson answer the person was Kim Harris.
White House salary disclosures for 2011 list a Kimberley D. Harris as a deputy assistant to the president and deputy counsel to the president.
Previously, a senior administration official told CNN that the White House was notified by GSA about the final inspector general's report shortly before it was released last month, more than nine months after Robertson said he told Harris about the ongoing investigation.
Issa acknowledged that over-the-top GSA spending existed during the preceding Bush administration, though he disputes figures released by Obama officials that show a 102% increase from 2006 to 2008. However, information provided by his staff on Monday showed the increase from 2006 to 2008 approached that figure.
"Wasteful spending is a problem that transcends multiple administrations," he said, adding that it was up to the current administration to halt it now.