Hilo Among Junket Destinations for GSA Official
by Dave Smith
Hilo, more specifically the Hilo Federal Building, has figured prominently in the recent news about scandals involving the General Services Administration.
GSA officials, past and present, have been appearing before several US House committees this week to testify about expensive conferences and extensive trips.
The inquiry was triggered by a report issued early this month by GSA Inspector General Brian Miller.
Lawmakers spent the past two days grilling GSA officials about a variety of activities, including a 2010 GSA conference in Las Vegas that cost taxpayers $823,000.
The GSA is the agency in charge of managing federal buildings and property.
However, the lawyer for Neely, who is the commissioner for the Public Buildings Service in the Pacific Rim region, announced last week that his client would assert his constitutional right to remain silent and would not testify before the committees.
Neely also made a nine-day trip to Hawaii last October for a “road show,” according to a timeline issued today by transportation committee Chairman John Mica, a Republican from Florida.
The “show” included a stop in Hilo for a ceremony to reopen the Hilo Federal Building on Waianuenue Avenue that had undergone an $8.9 million renovation.
The Hilo trip was mentioned in an interview with a GSA employee conducted in August by the inspector general’s office.
According to a transcript of the interview provided to House members, the purpose of the trip was for the ribbon-cutting in Hilo. It would be the second trip Neely made to Hawaii in 2011 after a five-day trip earlier in the year for the opening of new offices leased in Honolulu by the FBI.
The following is from the transcript after the interviewer from the inspector general’s office asks the GSA employee how often the trips occur:
GSA employee: “The Hawaii things, probably, it seems like they’re fairly frequent. I mean, [name redacted]’s got another one schedule [sic] for October.
IG’s office: “Okay.”
GSA employee: “And [redacted]’s going to be there for like ten days. It’s a ribbon-cutting for the Hilo federal building, which is about – it’s an old post office and courthouse maybe.”
(The Hilo Federal Building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was indeed a former courthouse, although that function ceased when the Third Circuit Court moved to Aupuni Street in 1979. Built in 1917 with major additions in 1938, it was also Hilo’s principle post office until that moved to the Hilo airport’s access road in 1978, although the building still contains the city’s secondary post office.)
According to the Associated Press, Miller today told members of Congress that his investigation turned up other questionable trips, including a 17-day trip in February to Hawaii, Guam and Saipan by Neely and his wife. In an email detailed by Miller, Neely told his wife that the trip would be her birthday present.
“Every time we turned over a stone we found 50 more with all kinds of things crawling out,” Miller told committee members, the AP reported today.
“GSA’s wasteful spending of millions on junkets, conferences, shady employee award programs, and bogus award ceremonies is just the tip of the iceberg of the agency’s abuse of the taxpayers,” Mica said in a statement issued by his committee.
Miller also told House members of other improprieties including 115 electronic devices such as iPods supposedly purchased for GSA prize ceremonies that are missing. One has been traced to Neely’s daughter, Miller said.
AP also reported today that at least 13 GSA officials have been disciplined or fired or had resigned as a result of the scandal.
They include former administrator Martha Johnson, who resigned April 2, but not before firing Public Buildings Service Commissioner Robert Peck. Another top aide has been fired and at least 10 other GSA employees, including Neely, have been placed on administrative leave.
According to AP, Miller told House members that he is investigating possible kickbacks and bribery and has recommended that the Justice Department look into criminal prosecutions.
While the initial call for hearings was largely partisan, the Washington Post reported that Democrats joined Republicans today in condemning the GSA’s actions.
The oversight committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), called them “indefensible” and “intolerable,” the Post reported.