Martha Johnson, the former General Services Administration administrator who lost her job over a lavish Las Vegas conference that’s become an icon of federal waste, will “personally apologize” before a congressional committee Monday for the junket that squandered hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars.
In her prepared remarks, released in advance of Monday’s hearing by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Johnson will also testify that the biennial GSA conference was once “economical” and “straightforward” but had become a “raucous, extravagant, arrogant, self-congratulatory event that ultimately belittled federal workers.”
“Leaders apparently competed to show their people how much entertainment they could provide, rather than how much performance capability they could build,” she will say, according to her remarks.
“I am extremely aggrieved by the gall of a handful of people to misuse federal tax dollars, twist contracting rules and defile the great name of the General Services Administration,” she will say. “Further, I am affronted by the insensitivity of the leaders to the culture they were condoning and am appalled that a handful of people can undercut public confidence in the GS and, indeed, all of government.”
But she notes that “as the head of the agency, I am responsible. I deeply regret that the exceedingly good work of GSA has been besmirched.”
The House hearing Monday launches a weeklong congressional inquiry into how exactly the General Services Administration – a once-obscure agency charged with managing federal property – spent more than $800,000 for the Las Vegas conference in October 2010 for 300 employees.
The hearing will also focus on Jeff Neely, a top GSA official who was charged with organizing the four-day conference but is expected to invoke his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination in Monday’s hearing. The career civil servant, who could also be facing a Justice Department probe into allegations of theft and contracting violations, told investigators that he felt he didn’t need to get competitive bids because he was paying for quality, according to the Washington Post.
The controversy over excessive government spending at a time of fiscal belt-tightening fueled extensive public outrage when an April 2 report from the GSA’s inspector general detailed the $822,751 of taxpayer dollars spent for the conference at the M Resort Spa Casino in Las Vegas.
The inspector general found that IG 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.
The embarrassing episode led to the resignation of Johnson, and several other top GSA officials were either fired or placed on administrative leave.
Democrats have tried to highlight the fact that costs for the biennial conference jumped under previous administrations; for example, the 2006 GSA Western Regions Conference in Oklahoma City cost $323,855 and the 2008 conference in New Orleans cost $655,025.
Issa speculated earlier Monday that “perhaps billions of dollars” could have been spent for the conferences – a pattern of spending that could have started under the George W. Bush administration.
“Wasteful spending is a problem that transcends multiple administrations and multiple Congresses,” Issa said in a statement before the hearing. “But it’s incumbent on the present administration and the current Congress to mandate a culture that prevents this type of waste and mismanagement, no matter what happened before them.”
Three other congressional hearings – one in the House and two in the Senate – are scheduled for this week.