AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. The Washington scandal machine cranked up today. The Secret Service has begun an inquiry into the conduct of several agents ahead of a presidential visit to Colombia, more on that elsewhere in the program. But we begin this hour on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers focused their ire on officials at the General Services Administration. The agency has been under withering scrutiny after the inspector general uncovered wasteful spending at an $800,000 employee conference in Nevada. NPR's Carrie Johnson has the story.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: As if thousands of dollars on coins and yearbooks weren't enough, some new details emerged today about over-the-top spending by GSA officials at that Las Vegas conference in 2010. The 300 federal employees who attended each got blackjack vests and instructions to behave like some well-known personalities, so says Congressman Michael Turner, a Republican from Ohio.
REPRESENTATIVE MICHAEL TURNER: One is assigned Cher. One is assigned Sammy Davis Jr., Elvis and Celine Dion.
JOHNSON: Heady stuff for employees at an agency with the humdrum mission of managing federal buildings and billions in federal contracts. Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, put it this way.
REPRESENTATIVE ELIJAH CUMMINGS: They disregarded one of the most basic tenets of government service: It's not your money; it's the taxpayers' money.
JOHNSON: And Cummings says the U.S. government wants that money back. It's already sent a bill for tuxedos and after-hours parties to two political appointees who were fired this month for their role in the scandal. Several other career workers are on leave while the Justice Department investigates whether laws against no-bid contracting and self-dealing have been broken. Jeffrey Neely, who planned the $800,000 Las Vegas conference, is at the center of the storm. He remains silent as Committee Chairman Darrell Issa asked him even the most basic questions.
REPRESENTATIVE DARRELL ISSA: Mr. Neely, what is your title at GSA?
JEFFREY NEELY: Mr. Chairman, on the advice of counsel, I respectfully decline to answer based upon my Fifth Amendment constitutional privilege.
ISSA: Mr. Neely, did you attend the 2010 Western Regional Conference in Las Vegas?
NEELY: Mr. Chairman, on the advice of my counsel, I respectfully decline to answer based upon my Fifth Amendment constitutional privilege.
JOHNSON: But pictures circulating on the Web told the story, namely pictures of a shirtless Neely lounging in the tub at the Nevada resort, a glass of red wine in his hand, his wife by his side. Former GSA leader Martha Johnson resigned after the episode became public. She told members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that she had no idea the conference...
MARTHA JOHNSON: ...had evolved into a raucous, extravagant, arrogant, self-congratulatory event that ultimately belittled federal workers.
JOHNSON: Still, lawmakers pressed Johnson about why she approved a $9,000 bonus for Neely even after she'd been briefed by watchdogs about big trouble at the event.
JOHNSON: I personally apologize to the American people. As the head of the agency, I'm responsible. I deeply regret this. I will mourn for the rest of my life the loss of my appointment.
JOHNSON: Johnson is not the only one with regrets. David Foley, a GSA official, caught on tape in Las Vegas making a wisecrack about congressional oversight, tried to do some explaining on Capitol Hill today.
DAVID FOLEY: I attempted to make a joke in the context of a town in celebration that I perceived as being similar to a comedic roast. I should have taken the stage to stress that we have a serious job and responsibility as stewards of taxpayer funds.
JOHNSON: Inspector General Brian Miller uncovered the overspending. He says there's evidence of more greed, including a five-day trip to Hawaii for a ribbon-cutting. Darrell Issa pressed him for details.
BRIAN MILLER: We do have other ongoing investigations...
ISSA: Including kickbacks.
MILLER: Including all sorts of improprieties, including bribes.
JOHNSON: Lawmakers planned three more hearings about the GSA scandal this week. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.