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GSA officials responded weakly at first to IG revelations

Apr. 13, 2012 - 06:00AM   |  
By ANDY MEDICI   |   Comments
Bob Peck, commissioner of GSA's Public Building Service (PBS), was fired in the wake of revelations about a lavish 2010 GSA training conference in Las Vegas.
Bob Peck, commissioner of GSA's Public Building Service (PBS), was fired in the wake of revelations about a lavish 2010 GSA training conference in Las Vegas. (Sheila Vemmer / Staff)

When senior officials at the General Services Administration first learned of troubling inspector general findings about a">lavish $822,000 conference in Las Vegas in 2010, they handed the organizer of that conference a letter of reprimand.

"This instance appears to reflect a managerial lapse which I expect will not be repeated," Public Buildings Service Commissioner Bob Peck wrote in the July reprimand to Jeff Neely, GSA's Public Buildings Service Region 9 administrator.

According to the IG report on the conference, Neely had directed in an email that the event be "over the top." That conference is the centerpiece of a scorching IG report on wasteful spending at GSA. The problems at GSA will be the focus of four congressional hearings next week.

After the reprimand by Peck, Neely received a $9,000 bonus toward the end of 2011, according to Capitol Hill sources familiar with the IG investigation.

But at least one top official at GSA GSA deputy administrator Susan Brita complained at the time that Peck's reprimand of Neely was far too lenient, "not even a slap on the wrist."

In a July 2011 email to Peck, Brita said Neely should have received a harsher response, especially when the IG said the expensive conference covered little substance.

"Jeff is a seasoned SES [Senior Executive Service member] who is expected to display the highest standards of common sense, and prudent financial management. He did neither. Sorry, but your letter [of reprimand] is not even a slap on the wrist," Brita wrote. The email also went to GSA chief of staff Stephen Leeds and deputy PBS commissioner Dave Foley.

When the IG report was finally released to the public on April 2,">Peck and Leeds were fired and Neely and Foley were put on administrative leave. In addition, GSA Administrator Martha Johnson was forced to resign and several other regional administrators and deputy administrators were put on leave.

The email was obtained and released by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Brita's email said the inspector general had not found any conference agenda that supported "important issues."

"Furthermore, expenses for a clown suit, bikes, tuxedos, and mind reader don't really lend themselves to a claim of a substantive conference," Brita wrote.

Meanwhile, newly released transcripts from the GSA inspector general's investigation show other examples of waste:

Top GSA officials flew to Hawaii for a week around July 7, 2011 to attend an hour-long ribbon-cutting event for the $65 million, 150,000-square-foot FBI headquarters under construction in Kapolei.

In an interview, an unnamed GSA employee told an employee from the IG's office the trip was "five to seven days," and when the IG employee asks asked if they were working hard the whole time, the employee said, "I doubt it."

GSA held a five-day conference May 10 to14, 2010 in Palm Springs, Calif., for 120 interns and 20 Region 9 executives.

The event included a catered awards ceremony, at an estimated $75 to $100 per person, which wouldn't count against the $71 employee per diem for meals, because GSA called the food "light refreshments," according to a GSA employee interviewed by the IG's office.

"They had a carver. How do you pick up prime rib with your fingers? They had oysters on the half shell. Yeah, you can pick them up, but why are we eating that?" the employee asked.

"The Las Vegas conference was the tip of the iceberg, and every new example demonstrates the mind-boggling culture of waste and blatant disregard for the taxpayers' money within GSA," Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said in a statement.

Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees federal buildings, said Congress must take serious action to rein in GSA's spending.

"The extent of waste and misuse of taxpayer dollars by GSA appears to have no end," Denham said in a statement.

Congress has scheduled four hearings to investigate wasteful spending at GSA.

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