Amid unwavering public apologies Monday from former employees of the General Services Administration (GSA), one official chose to remain mum.
Jeff Neely, the GSA official who organized a lavish 2010 conference for the agency, sat motionless--save for several eyebrow raises--as ranking House Oversight Committee chairman Elijah Cummings (D-M.D.) accused him, a regional commissioner, and his wife of having "used taxpayer funds to bankroll a lavish lifestyle." The grilling occurred in front of a national audience at the first of at least four hearings this week on the conference scandal.
And when it came time for Neely to apologize or defend himself, he only uttered one phrase.
"Mr. Chairman, on the advice of my counsel, I respectfully decline to answer based upon my Fifth Amendment constitutional privileges," Neely repeatedly responded Monday to questions about the scandal, which centers around about $830,000 in taxpayer dollars that was used for a three-day employee conference in 2010, as well as on mundane questions such as his former job title.
Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) quickly dismissed Neely from the hearing room, once his decision to keep quiet was clear. But Neely remained the center of many discussions as the panelists and committee members hashed out the scandal details with the first panel of the afternoon.
"What does it take to be fired from the GSA?!" committee member Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), asked Michael Robertson, GSA's Chief of Staff, referring to Neely. Chaffetz noted that Neely remains currently on administrative leave, receives pay, and received a bonus and a performance award after agency officials learned of Neely's affiliation with the scandal.
Members on both sides of the aisle repeatedly asked former administrator Martha Johnson, who resigned April 2 in connection to the conference scandal, to defend why she approved a $9,000 bonus for Neely and an award after he appeared in an investigation report from the Office of the Inspector General. Johnson said the report the OIG provided to the agency was not final-- it was "an interim report"-- and therefore she did not wish to interfere with the investigation by pushing back against the bonus. Additionally, his performance review panel recommended the bonus, she said.
When pressed later Monday, Johnson did not vociferously walk back her decision to approve the bonus, but instead said she found it difficult to reevaluate the situation in hindsight.
Neely made headlines this week when photos of Neely hot-tubbing in his luxury suite with his wife (during one of the eight visits spent scouting sites for the 2010 conference site) were found on his wife's Google+ page.
Inspector General Brian Miller testified that his investigation found that Neely had created a culture of bullying in the agency. One witness was "extremely afraid" of Neely and asked that any comments on Neely remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.
Members of Congress, including Issa and others, expressed outrage over many facets of the scandal Monday.
"It's no wonder the American people have lost faith in their government," Mike Kelly (R-Penn.) said. "Who the heck is the watchdog?!" Kelly, Cummings and others noted that the GSA scandal coincides with tax time-- when families across the country are being asked to write checks to the IRS amid national economic turmoil.