TOPICS > Politics

Congress Agrees on 1 Thing: GSA Scandal an Outrage

April 19, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
A General Services Administration Inspector General report spurred an uproar in Congress when it detailed spending on an $823,000 conference in Las Vegas that included a mind reader, a clown and a $31,000 reception. Kwame Holman updates the GSA spending scandal amid an ongoing investigation and multiple congressional hearings.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: More details have emerged about over-the-top spending at the U.S. government’s General Services Administration. And that was the subject at several committee hearings on Capitol Hill this week.

NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman has our report.

REP. TIM WALZ, D-Minn.: It goes beyond public trust. It goes beyond the thought that how can we get to a point of that type of selfishness, when others are being asked to do more with less.

KWAME HOLMAN: Even with bipartisanship at the Capitol in short supply these days, one issue has had Democrats and Republicans speaking with a unified voice: the spending scandal at the General Services Administration.

REP. LOU BARLETTA, R-Penn.: I don’t know where to start. I mean, we could probably spend weeks talking about all the abuse and the different items of abuse. And to be honest with you, it actually makes me sick to my stomach.

KWAME HOLMAN: The uproar stems from a report by the inspector general at the GSA, the agency that oversees federal property and supplies.

It detailed a lavish 2010 Las Vegas conference for 300 people that cost $823,000. The event featured a mind reader, a clown and a $31,000 reception. The over-the-top details prompted members of Congress to hold four separate hearings on the GSA this week, even though the revelations already had resulted in the resignation of the GSA administrator, the firing of two deputies and 10 career employees being put on administrative leave.

Included in that group is the organizer of the Las Vegas conference, Jeffrey Neely, who also took agency-approved trips to the wine country of Napa Valley, Calif., and to Hawaii, both after the 2010 event sparked an investigation.

At a House investigative hearing Monday, Neely declined to answer any questions related to the investigation to preserve his legal rights.

REP. DARRELL ISSA, R-Calif., Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman: Mr. Neely, was the original — what was the original budget for that conference?

JEFF NEELY, regional commissioner, General Services Administration: Mr. Chairman, on the advice of my counsel, I respectfully decline to answer based upon my Fifth Amendment constitutional privilege.

KWAME HOLMAN: The GSA’s inspector general, Brian Miller , was asked at a Senate hearing yesterday if his initial report was just the tip of the iceberg.

BRIAN MILLER, inspector general, General Services Administration: Every time we turn over a stone, we find 50 more and we find other instances. Even today, we found out that the wife of the regional commissioner had a parking space throughout the entire year of 2012 at the federal building. And we just find one thing after another. And it’s difficult for me, even now, to say — to quantify it.

KWAME HOLMAN: Ed O’Keefe has been covering the story for The Washington Post. He says the Las Vegas conference brought to light a problem with the GSA’s culture.

ED O’KEEFE, The Washington Post: The agency has a lot of interaction with corporate America, whether it’s I.T. vendors, defense contractors, food vendors, office supply companies, technology firms of all sorts, because they do most of the purchasing for the federal government.

So I think because they interact so often with big business, they feel like they should act like a business, not only in how they spend their money and manage the agency, but also in how they party and how they interact with potential customers and with each other.

KWAME HOLMAN: The furor also may become fodder for the fall campaign. Likely Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said yesterday he would clean House at the GSA and at the Secret Service rocked by the prostitution scandal involving agents there.

A day earlier, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney weighed in.

JAY CARNEY, White House press secretary: The president believes that everyone who serves the American people by working for this government needs to hold themselves to the highest standards of public service.

KWAME HOLMAN: Still, GOP lawmakers are saying the administration deserves some blame.

Congressman Jason Chaffetz of Utah.

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ, R-Utah: Management in this case has to be responsible. There have to be checks and balances in place. And, you know, there’s a very good whistle-blower who stood up and she said, you know what, this isn’t right. This shouldn’t have happened. And what’s concerning is the pervasive nature of it. It’s not just one or two people. It’s just so widespread.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Senate’s number-two Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois, said Congress has a responsibility to investigate, regardless of the party in power.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN, D-Ill.: Well, I can tell you, if it happened under a Democrat or a Republican, Congress’ job is to ask the hard questions. This is our responsibility. We appropriate taxpayers’ money to these agencies. When it’s wasted, people have to be held accountable.

KWAME HOLMAN: And the House speaker, Republican John Boehner, expressed a similar sentiment at his weekly news conference yesterday.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio: This is outrageous behavior regardless of whose administration it is.

And, you know, I wrote my checks out on Sunday to pay my taxes. I can imagine millions of other Americans wrote their checks out. And they’re taking their hard-earned money and they’re sending it to Washington, and this is outrageous that their tax money is getting wasted in this fashion.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Post’s Ed O’Keefe says it remains unclear if the universal outrage will get lawmakers to work together to address problems at the GSA.

ED O’KEEFE: There are lawmakers who said, yes, I’m going to bring up legislation, we’re going to push for this. We will see. Right now, with Congress unable to do most of anything, it’s possible that this could because something that gets rammed through before Election Day.

But if it doesn’t get done before Election Day, and the longer we get away from this, and the longer that we forget about this scandal, it may just be that it goes the way of all the other scandals.

KWAME HOLMAN: In the meantime, the spotlight will stay on the GSA, at least for now, with additional hearings expected next week.