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Man behind GSA's lavish Las Vegas conference gone from federal agency

From Kate Bolduan, Deirdre Walsh and Greg Seaby , CNN
updated 6:39 AM EDT, Fri May 25, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jeff Neely organized a GSA conference in Las Vegas that cost $800,000
  • He was implicated in a report by the agency's inspector general and put on leave
  • A GSA spokesman says he's no longer with the agency, but doesn't give details
  • A House Republican says he wants a law making federal employees answer to Congress

Washington (CNN) -- The man behind a lavish General Services Administration conference in Las Vegas that critics have lambasted as a waste of taxpayer money and emblematic of government excess has left the agency, a federal spokesman said Thursday.

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Jeff Neely, a regional commissioner, had been placed on administrative leave in March for his part in organizing a 2010 conference in Nevada that cost $800,000. As of Thursday, he is "no longer employed with GSA," said Adam Elkington, deputy press secretary for the agency.

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What exactly led to Neely's departure was not immediately clear. But a GSA official who asked not to be identified discussing personnel matters noted that federal employees have the right to retire as long as they have accumulated the required years of service.

The U.S. Department of Justice could still implicate Neely in its criminal investigation, though, even after he has left the agency, the official added.

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Neely has been asked to reimburse the government for a private, in-room party that he hosted, the official added.

Earlier this spring, Neely -- who was famously pictured in one photo in a bathtub in a Las Vegas hotel room, with wine glasses nearby -- cited his Fifth Amendment rights in refusing to testify before Congress.

Rep. Darrell Issa, the California Republican who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, chided Neely for leaving "many questions unanswered" even as he stressed that issues with the GSA go well beyond him.

"Mr. Neely's conduct certainly diminished his ability to continue as a senior public servant," Issa said in a statement. "In fact, the problems at GSA may far exceed his involvement in the waste of taxpayer dollars that has outraged Americans."

Another House Republican, John Mica of Florida, cheered the news that Neely no longer works for the GSA. He added that he will push legislation aimed at forcing federal employees to answer questions from Congress -- as Neely refused to do before not just Issa's committee but also the House Transportation Committee helmed by Mica -- or else risk being fired.

"In order to deal with this type of situation in the future, I plan to introduce legislation that will allow the immediate termination of senior level (government) executives who violate their oaths of office by refusing to cooperate with congressional investigations or to testify before Congress," Mica said in a statement.

Describing the billions of dollars in contracts and services handled by the GSA as a source of temptation, senators from both parties last month called for the agency to clean house as it roots out corruption.

The scandal came to light earlier this year when GSA Inspector General Brian Miller released a final report shedding light on the Las Vegas conference as well as violations of travel and spending rules.

Among other details, the report explained how Neely, and presumably others, avoided strictures against supplying food at government work conferences such as the Las Vegas event by creating joke awards in order to hold ceremonies at which food would be allowed.

The controversy, which includes allegations of personal travel under the thin guise of government business and an employee award program that exceeded spending limits, so far has focused on one of 10 regions of the GSA -- an agency with a multibillion-dollar budget and more than 12,000 employees.

The revelations have prompted taxpayer indignation and put a spotlight on wasteful spending by the GSA, which handles government real estate and other nonmilitary procurement.

Coming in an election year, the scandal has become a political focal point, with Republicans seeking to frame it as a reflection of big government abuse and criticizing the fact that Neely took more trips on the federal dime after the release of Miller's preliminary report last year showing spending and travel abuses.

Democrats, meanwhile, say the problem predated Barack Obama becoming president and involved a few bad players rather than a rotten system.

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