Former GSA Chief ‘Focused on Performance’ in Giving $9,000 Bonus to Organizer of $822,775 Vegas Conference

By Penny Starr | April 18, 2012 | 4:50 PM EDT

Martha Johnson, an Obama appointee who resigned as GSA administration as a spending scandal at the agency surfaced, defended her work as a public servant at a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on April 17, 2012. ( Starr)

( - Jeffrey Neely, the regional commissioner with the General Services Administration who was the chief organizer of a lavish conference paid for with $822,751 in tax money, received a $9,000 bonus courtesy of U.S. taxpayers.

The bonus was an issue raised at a House hearing on Monday that focused on the 2010 conference in Las Vegas and the over-the-top spending revealed in a report issued earlier this month by the GSA Office of Inspector General.

That spending included a $31,208 pool-side reception and $327,151 in travel expenses.

Martha Johnson, the GSA administrator and Obama appointee who resigned ahead of the report’s release, testified at the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing.

“Ms. Johnson, without getting bogged down into conduct reviews versus performance reviews, why did you give that $9,000 bonus?” Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) asked Johnson.

“I gave that $9,000 bonus because I was focused on performance and because I – the recommendation came from the building's commissioner, who was the direct budget and supervisor of Mr. Neely,” Johnson said.

The issue of Neely’s bonus was first addressed by Rep. Darrell Issa’s (R-Calif.), chairman of the committee, in his opening remarks.

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“Why was Jeff Neely, a regional public building service commissioner who was the chief organizer of the 2010 Las Vegas conference, given a bonus approved by the agency's most senior officials even though they knew and were discussing sensational details of what had happened at the conference?” Issa said.

“Question here from the dais has to be all the good works, all the assertions of a good job, if you have this kind of abuse can they balance out to be a positive bonus totaling over $9,000?” Issa said.

After Neely invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent and refused to answer any questions, including his title with GSA, Issa removed him from the witness table and then questioned Johnson about the bonus.

“Ms. Johnson, I appreciate your opening statement and the work that you said you did,” Issa said. “But I'm very troubled by the bonus that Mr. Neely received.

“How can you justify a bonus for somebody that you knew at the time of his bonus from Mr. Miller, in fact, was at the center of this misconduct?”

Johnson tried to explain that the bonus is connected to “performance” reviews and not “conduct” reviews.

“Congressman, there are two processes,” Johnson said. “One is the conduct process and one is the performance process.

“The conduct process by which I could discipline someone was wrapped up in an investigation, which I requested from the I.G. It took much longer,” Johnson said.

“I appreciate that,” Issa said. “But Ms. Johnson – were you aware that excess money was spent at that conference, significant excess?

“I had received a communication from the I.G. with non-conclusive results. I was concerned. I wanted the full picture," Johnson said.

“So when we moved to the performance cycle, the performance reviews for senior executives are based on a three for maintaining an organization, a four for reforming an organization, and a five for transforming,” Johnson said.

“I was informed that his leasing processes were the model for the nation,” Johnson said. “Leasing is one of our critical issues, I granted him a four.”

At the unusually bi-partisan hearing, Democrats joined in expressing outrage about the bonus given to Neely, who could face criminal charges.

Johnson’s replacement, Acting Administrator Daniel M. Tangherlini, comprised the second panel at the hearing and was questioned by Ranking Member Rep. Elijah Cumming (D-Md.).

“I think, when you've got bad actors, the last thing you want to do is be – is to give them bonuses,” Cummings said. “The public doesn't understand it.”

Cumming said he did not think the distinction between “performance” and “conduct” reviews would fly with the public.

“And even if there is a two-track process – and that's the impression that I got, just two tracks here – some kind of way – we don't want – you know, as you go about the business of trying to reestablish this trust, you don't want the public to be confused about folks going out there and partying with their money and at the same time getting a bonus,” Cummings said.

“I mean, it's like slapping them in the – slapping them in the face,” Cummings said.

Neely was in charge of the conference that sent 300 people to Las Vegas and racked up a tab of more than $822,751, including a $75,000 bike-building event and $130,000 to send 15 scouts to Vegas to pick the event venue.

Neely is on administrative leave from his post but is still receiving his $179,000-a-year salary.

On April 2, Johnson resigned ahead of the report’s release.

Public Buildings Service Chief Robert Peck and Johnson's top adviser, Stephen Leeds, were forced out after the scandal came to light.

“As the agency Congress has entrusted with developing the rules followed by other federal agencies for conferences, GSA has a special responsibility to set an example, and that did not occur here,” the inspector general concluded in its report.

The GSA is in charge of federal buildings and supplies, and part of its mission is to save taxpayers money.