By LARRY MARGASAK, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The General Services Administration inspector general said Monday that he's investigating possible bribery and kickbacks in the agency, as a central figure in a GSA spending scandal asserted his right to remain silent at a congressional hearing.
Inspector general Brian Miller, responding to a question at the hearing, said, "We do have other ongoing investigations, including all sorts of improprieties, including bribes, including possible kickbacks."
Jeffrey Neely, who asserted his Fifth Amendment privilege before the committee, has been placed on leave as a regional executive in Western states.
Neely, summoned before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, could face a criminal investigation by the Justice Department -- where his case was referred by the inspector general.
Neely was largely responsible for an $823,000 Las Vegas conference in 2010 that was the focus of Miller's report. Three other congressional committees also are looking at the conference spending and a culture of waste at the agency in charge of federal buildings and supplies
"Mr. Chairman, on advice of counsel I decline to answer based on my constitutional privilege," Neely said in response to questions from chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif. The conference was the subject of a highly critical report by Miller issued on April 2. Taxpayers picked up the tab for a clown, a mind-reader, bicycles for a team-building exercise.
Martha Johnson, who resigned as chief of the agency after the inspector general's report was issued this month, said the Western Regions Conference "had evolved into a raucous, extravagant, arrogant, self-congratulatory event."
Johnson, whom lawmakers accused of sitting on the findings for 11 months after receiving an interim briefing from the inspector general, apologized "to the American people for the entire situation.
"As the head of the agency, I am responsible. I deeply regret that the exceedingly good work of GSA has been besmirched. I will mourn for the rest of my life the loss of my appointment."
Previously, Neely had told inspector general investigators that a $2,700 party he threw in his Las Vegas hotel suite was an employee-awards event, according to a transcript of the interview.
"This is an award recognition ceremony ...." Neely insisted to an internal investigator. "That's what this was. That's...not a Neely party right. I actually...it was in a suite that wasn't even mine."
The investigator then confronted Neely with his email saying that he and his wife "are hosting a party in our loft room. There will be wine and beer and some munchies...." There was no mention of awards.
When Neely insisted again it was an awards event, the skeptical investigator told him, "You realize how this looks?"
"I get it that it looks funny," Neely said.
The inspector general has referred Neely to the Justice Department for a possible criminal investigation, according to a congressional committee official who was not authorized to be quoted by name on the subject.
It was not clear what the department was asked to investigate.
Neely, on leave as regional commissioner of the Public Buildings Service for the Pacific Rim, was largely responsible for the Las Vegas conference.
The Oversight Committees released internal memos that showed GSA officials debated last year whether to give Neely a bonus for his job performance. The officials were aware at the time that the inspector general was investigating the conference spending.
The now-resigned GSA administrator, Martha Johnson, granted Neely a $9,000 bonus over the objection of Deputy Administrator Susan Brita.
Brita wrote in a November 2011 email, that "based on what we know already" about the conference and a questionable awards program, "I would not recommend a bonus."
Johnson wrote in an email, "yes on a bonus" in part because Neely had to serve in an acting capacity "forever and a day."