This may come as a shock to readers, but the agency that spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on bogus, self-congratulatory “meetings” and bubble baths for its regional commissioner might also have been involved in a little graft, too. The Inspector General of the GSA told Congress yesterday that he has opened an investigation into allegations of bribery and kickbacks, deepening the potential scandal:
The inspector general for the General Services Administration said Monday that he is investigating possible bribery and kickbacks in the agency, as lawmakers accused the former GSA administrator of allowing a Las Vegas spending scandal to erode taxpayers’ trust in government.
Inspector General Brian Miller told a congressional committee scrutinizing an $823,000 Las Vegas conference that his office has asked the Justice Department to investigate “all sorts of improprieties” surrounding the 2010 event, “including bribes, including possible kickbacks.” He did not provide details.
Miller’s revelations of possible further misconduct by organizers of the four-day event, coming on the heels of a highly critical report, enraged Democrats and Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The lawmakers put GSA officials on the defensive during a tense four-hour hearing, with some Republicans loudly rebuking former administrator Martha N. Johnson and her colleagues.
Small wonder, then, that regional commissioner Jeff “Bubble Bath” Neely took the Fifth Amendment when called to answer for himself in Congress yesterday:
The General Services Administration official at the center of a scandal over lavish government spending declined to answer questions at a congressional hearing on Monday, invoking the Fifth Amendment.
“Mr. Chairman, on the advice of my counsel I respectfully decline to answer based upon my Fifth Amendment constitutionally privilege,” Jeff Neely, the GSA official, said repeatedly in response to a string of questions from Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
I wondered about Neely’s action when I first heard about it. Certainly, it’s every American’s right to protect himself against self-incrimination while under oath, but until now, there hadn’t been any allegations of serious criminality in the GSA scandal — only exceedingly poor judgment. If the IG has now begun looking into graft and corruption at the agency, that makes this an entirely different kettle of very stinky fish indeed.
That’s not to say that the potential criminality is the entire extent of the scandal, though. Last week’s reporting on the story included a couple of smaller but still significant items into the mindset of the people involved — and the administration’s efforts to defend itself. First, Roll Call’s Jonathan Strong reported that the GSA didn’t just settle for overspending on normal team-building events, but went way out of their way to find excuses to stage new ones, including the creation of a Jackass Award:
Officials at the General Services Administration invented fake awards as an excuse to hold taxpayer-funded dinner events at conferences, according to an interview transcript obtained by Roll Call.
At one such event, GSA bestowed the “jackass award” on an employee, a GSA employee told the agency’s Office of Inspector General, according to the transcript. …
In the interview transcript obtained by Roll Call, a GSA employee who attended the Las Vegas conference said the administration’s officials routinely created awards to justify taxpayer reimbursement for dinner events.
“Typically at any — any conference in my memory over the last three or four years, probably even further back, there was always — there’s always one night where we have an awards ceremony and people are fed. I mean, it’s not even like it’s snacks. I mean, sometimes it’s pretty close to being like a full meal,” the employee said.
Describing the award ceremonies as a “running joke,” the employee said, supervisors explained that the fake awards were designed to justify dinner events at the conferences.
“He says: ‘OK, everybody, just remember, the only way we can have food is if we have an awards ceremony.’ Maybe not in those exact words, but fairly similar,” the employee said.
Also last week, an anonymous source within the Obama administration tried to argue that costs had actually gone down at GSA events since the lavish years of the Bush administration. US News reported that this Politico source flat-out lied to get the heat off of the White House:
But an anonymous source provided numbers to the news outletPolitico last week, floating the idea that the opulence of the GSA Western Region Conference had its roots in the Bush administration.
The source turned over documents to Politico showing that from 2004 to 2006 the cost of the conference ballooned by nearly 250 percent from $93,000 to $323,855.
But the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform says that whomever provided those numbers from the Obama administration fibbed.
“Instead of costs going up 248 percent between 2004 and 2006 as had been claimed, costs were actually reduced from $401,024 in 2004 to $323,855 in 2006—a 19 percent decrease,” the press release from the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform stated.
Classy. The very stinky fish tends to rot from the head down, after all.