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Former GSA chief apologizes for "extravagant" Las Vegas conference at House hearing

Former GSA Administrator Martha Johnson takes her seat on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, April 16, 2012, to testify before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing on wasteful spending and excesses by GSA during a 2010 Las Vegas conference. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Martha Johnson, the former chief of the General Services Administration (GSA), apologized Monday for a lavish four-day Las Vegas-area conference in 2010 that cost taxpayers over $822,000, taking responsibility for what she described as a "raucous, extravagant, arrogant, self-congratulatory event that ultimately belittled federal workers."

"I personally apologize to the American people," Johnson said in her opening remarks at a House Oversight Committee hearing addressing GSA's alleged "culture of wasteful spending."

"As the head of the agency I am responsible. I deeply regret this. I will mourn for the rest of my life the loss of my appointment," she added.

GSA Inspector General Brian Miller said he's also conducting other investigations surrounding the GSA, including "all sorts of improprieties, including bribes, including possible kickbacks."

The hearing, led by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., aimed to answer "serious questions" about how the government is using Americans' tax dollars, according to the committee's website.

The GSA is the federal government's principal procurement agency, acquiring office space, vehicles and supplies to facilitate government operations. It has over 12,000 employees and a budget of more than $26 billion.

Johnson resigned earlier this month and two of her deputies were fired after findings of the excessive expenditures were made public in a report by the office of the Inspector General. Johnson attended the hearing alongside GSA officials David Foley, Michael Robertson, Daniel Tangherlini and Jeff Neely.

Miller, who documented the spending, asked the Department of Justice last week to consider criminal charges against Neely, who organized the trip, according to the Washington Post. Neely was present at the hearing but invoked his Fifth Amendment constitutional privilege and declined to answer any questions directed toward him.

In the inspector general's report, Miller found that "GSA spending on conference planning was excessive, wasteful, and in some cases impermissible." The report also found that GSA incurred"impermissible and questionable miscellaneous expenses" including: mementos for attendees; purchases of clothing for GSA employees; tuxedo rentals; and $6,325 on commemorative coins "rewarding" all conference participants for their work.

Neither Johnson nor any of the other GSA officials present at the hearing defended the conference's expenditures. Johnson did suggest, however, that when she entered the GSA in 2010 it was not functioning as smoothly as it had when she had previously served on it during the Clinton administration.

"When I returned to GSA in 2010, the agency was not quite the same," Johnson said. (She left the GSA in 2001.) "A quarter of the executive positions were empty, strategy was nonexistent, major customers viewed our partnership askance, labor relationships were acrimonious and the more expensive leasing portfolio had ballooned, and more."

Johnson said that her confirmation to the GSA post had been held up by Congress for nine months, and that by the time she was finally sworn in "nearly two years had elapsed without a confirmed administrator" and "a sequence of four acting administrators had overseen the agency."

"What I did not know was that there was yet another problem. The Western Regions' Conference and economical training event... had evolved into a raucous, extravagant, arrogant, self-congratulatory event that ultimately belittled federal workers," Johnson said. "The expensive planning for that conference was well underway when I entered GSA and I was unaware of the scope. Thus I began my tenure as administrator."

Miller testified that while good news was "very difficult to find among all the bad news and repugnant conduct," the most recent proceedings confirmed that at the very least, "the oversight system worked."

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