Congressional hearing on GSA spending practices begins Monday

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A General Services Administration executive will assert his right to remain silent at a congressional hearing next week into the agency's spending practices, the official's lawyer said Friday.

It was learned that the official, Jeffrey Neely, also could face a possible criminal investigation.

Neely was placed on leave by the GSA's new leadership. He was commissioner for the Public Buildings Service in the Pacific Rim region, covering Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada and several other countries and territories.

As the executive largely responsible for an October, 2010 conference at a Las Vegas resort, Neely was subpoenaed to testify Monday before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The panel is one of four congressional committees investigating GSA spending, inquiries that began earlier this month when the agency's inspector general reported an $823,000 spending spree at the Las Vegas event.

A congressional committee official, who was not authorized to be quoted by name on the subject, confirmed Friday that the inspector general referred Neely to the Justice Department.

Whether the referral was directly connected to the conference is uncertain.

Neely's attorney for employment matters,, Robert DePriest, di not immediately comment.

His lawyer for the committee proceedings, Preston Burton, said Friday night that Neely will comply with the subpoena and appear Monday. Burton said he doesn't know whether a referral has been made.

Oversight committee chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., wrote Burton on Friday that the subpoena was issued after "you advised my staff that Mr. Neely would not appear voluntarily.''

Issa said in the letter that Burton advised the committee "that if Mr. Neely is compelled to appear at the hearing, he will 'assert his constitutional privilege to remain silent.'''

GSA Inspector General Brian Miller has told several congressional committees investigating the agency that there have been criminal referrals.

An internal government memo released Friday shows officials of the GSA were aware of a spending problem months before the scandal burst into public view this month.

The GSA's deputy administrator, Susan Brita, emailed agency officials last July that the inspector general found no substantive agenda for the conference. She said that expenses for a clown suit, bicycles used for a team-building exercise, tuxedos and a mind-reader didn't lend themselves to the claim of a substantive conference.

Brita also questioned why a regional administrator in charge of the conference received only a disciplinary letter that "is not even a slap on the wrist.''

A major concern in the memo was how The Washington Post, with thousands of readers who are federal employees, would report the story.

A GSA spokesman declined to comment, saying the agency preferred to let the email speak for itself.

The email was sent to Robert Peck, then the head of the GSA's Public Building Service, with copies to his deputy, David Foley, and another top agency official, Stephen Leeds.

Peck and Leeds were fired after the inspector general issued a stinging report this month on the cost of the conference to tapayers.

GSA administrator Martha Johnson resigned in the wake of the report. Eight GSA employees have been placed on administrative leave, including Foley. He is seen in a conference video giving an award to an employee who produced a rap video bragging about the conference spending.

The email by Brita, who remains at GSA, was made public by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which will conduct the first of four hearings on GSA's spending practices next week. The agency is in charge of federal buildings and supplies and part of its mission is to save taxpayers money. "The Obama administration has not been upfront with the American people about how long they've known about lavish spending abuses at GSA,'' said Issa, the committee chairman. "It's clear that they were fretting about the political consequences and preparing for media scrutiny on abuses many months ago but didn't seem to take real actions until the release of the inspector general's report couldn't be delayed any longer,'' Issa said.

Brita wrote that a letter to Neely "should be crafted with a WAPO (Washington Post) mind frame.'' She said she had no doubt the Post would connect the lavish conference spending to a period of high unemployment and a down economy. She wondered what the reaction to the story would be from the public and Congress and questioned how GSA's political leadership would respond. "Jeff is a seasoned SES (senior executive service employee) who is expected to display the highest standards of common sense, and prudent financial management,'' she wrote Peck. "He did neither. Sorry, but your letter is not even a slap on the wrist,'' she wrote.