Senate, House set back-to-back GSA inquiries

WASHINGTON -- A U.S. Senate inquiry announced Friday will open officials from the General Services Administration to fresh questioning about the agency's $823,000 conference in Las Vegas.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee set an April 18 hearing into the four-day training for 300 employees at the M Resort in October 2010 that the GSA inspector general said went "over the top" on wasteful spending and violations of federal contracting rules.

GSA commissioner Martha Johnson resigned this week over the conference, and two agency leaders were fired. Four others were put on administrative leave.

The conference planned by the Public Buildings Service included spending on semiprivate catered in-room parties, $44 per person daily breakfasts, a $3,200 mind reader and a $75,000 bicycle building project as a teamwork exercise.

GSA Inspector General Brian Miller and Daniel Tangherlini, named this week to replace Johnson as commissioner, will appear before the Senate panel, according to the announcement by its chairman, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.

Boxer is an ally of Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who with other Nevada leaders is attempting to shield Las Vegas from being made a scapegoat for the scandal, which they fear could discourage other government bodies from scheduling conferences here.

Reid criticized an upcoming hearing called by a House Republican chairman and set for April 19, the day after the Senate inquiry. He said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., was attempting to "embarrass Las Vegas."

A Reid spokeswoman said the planned Senate hearing is "completely different." Kristen Orthman said Mica "is attacking Vegas personally" by calling the GSA conference a "Vegas junket," and when he said the GSA was wishing "what happened in Vegas would stay in Vegas."

New details have emerged on a GSA employee awards program, which also is drawing scrutiny.

The program spent more than $438,000 over three years, far exceeding the agency's per-gift limit of $99, congressional investigators said.

The Hats Off Program initially gave out items of nominal value. Over time, the awards became iPods, digital cameras, GPS devices and other electronics.

The spending was for the 2007 through 2010 budget years.

The GSA, the real estate agency for federal buildings, said in a statement that the program has ended.

In 2009, the average gift per employee in the Public Buildings Service was $328, investigators said.

"The Hats Off award program degenerated into a taxpayer-funded giveaway where employees handed out iPods to their office buddies for almost any reason," said Mica, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

"Not surprisingly, the inspector general's report identified the supervisors who ran the Hats Off store as the biggest winners of taxpayer swag."

The Associated Press contributed to this story. Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.