Former General Services Administration Administrator Martha Johnson personally apologized to Congress for the exorbitant Las Vegas conference, saying she will “mourn for the rest of my life the loss of my appointment.”
Testifying before the House Oversight Committee in the first of four scheduled hearings this week on the scandal that caused her to resign and several employees to be either fired or put on administrative leave, Johnson said she was “extremely aggrieved” by the gall of a handful of people to misuse federal tax dollars, twist contracting rules and defile the name of GSA.
“Leaders apparently competed to show their people how much entertainment they could provide, rather than how much performance capability they could build,” Johnson said. “As the head of the agency, I am responsible. I deeply regret that the exceedingly good work of GSA has been besmirched.”
The hearing focused elsewhere besides Johnson, the head of the agency who took office just months before the 2010 Western Regions Conference – the more than $800,000 conference at the center of an inspector general’s report that brought to light misuse of taxpayer funds – took place.
Johnson, who resigned April 2, testified that when she assumed the agency’s leadership in February 2010, defended herself, saying she eventually learned that its Western region training conference had over time “evolved into a raucous, extravagant, arrogant, self-congratulatory event that ultimately belittled federal workers and would stain the very work that other committed staff and I were preparing to do.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Democrat from Maryland, focused his opening comments at the already-heated hearing on Jeffrey Neely.
Cummings, referring to internal documents, accused Neely and his wife of blowing through federal dollars, as if they believed they were “some kind of agency royalty who used taxpayer funds to bankroll their lavish lifestyle.”
“They violated one of the most basic tenets of government service. It’s not your money,” Cummings said.
Neely took his right to invoke the 5th Amendment and not testify himself, insinuating that he could face legal charges.
The controversy over excessive government spending at a time of fiscal belt-tightening fueled extensive public outrage when an April 2 report from GSA Inspector General Brian Miller detailed the $822,751 of taxpayer dollars spent for the conference at the M Resort Spa Casino in Henderson, NV.
The inspector general found that “many of the expenditures on this conference were excessive and wasteful and that in many instances GSA followed neither federal procurement laws nor its own policy on conference spending.” Examples of such expenditures included $75,000 for a bicycle-building exercise and $3,200 for a mind-reader.
Miller testified that while it was “very difficult to find among all the bad news and repugnant conduct,” the uproar at least demonstrated that “the oversight system worked.”
But “more needs to be done to establish early warning systems,” he said, warning that the misconduct at the 2010 conference “could only occur in an environment where the best lack all conviction while the worst skirt the rules.”