By Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An annual federal training conference deteriorated during the past decade from a productive gathering into "a raucous, extravagant, arrogant, self-congratulatory event," an ousted U.S. government administrator said on Monday.
Testifying at a U.S. congressional hearing, Martha Johnson, who resigned under pressure this month as head the General Services Administration, accepted responsibility and apologized to the American people.
"I will mourn the rest of my life the loss of my appointment and its role in leading a vital and important part of the government," said Johnson, who sought to mitigate her role by saying she was not immediately aware of the abuses.
The hearing by the Republican-led House of Representatives Oversight Committee examined the 2010 GSA western regional training conference in Las Vegas for 300 workers that cost taxpayers $823,000, featured a comic, a clown and a mind reader and exploded this month into an election-year spending scandal.
"Wasteful spending is a problem that transcends multiple administrations and multiple Congresses," committee chairman Darrell Issa said in his opening statement.
"But it's incumbent on the present administration and the current Congress to mandate a culture that prevents this type of waste and mismanagement," Issa said.
Jeff Neely, the senior government official who organized the conference, was subpoenaed to appear at the hearing, the first of four such proceedings on both sides of the Capitol this week.
But Neely invoked his constitutional right not to answer any questions.
The GSA, with nearly 13,000 employees, manages federal buildings and purchases government supplies.
The GSA's office of inspector general this month released a yearlong investigative report into the conference, finding a number of concerns that drew questions and criticism about the gathering from Republicans and Democrats.
Fallout intensified with release of a spoof video from the conference in which a federal employee performed a rap song about wasteful spending and jokes he will never face internal investigation.
Issa criticized the administration for failing to expose the wasteful spending at the conference earlier, noting top GSA officials were informed of the inspector general's investigation nearly a year ago.
"Why did it take eleven months for the Obama administration to take meaningful action?" Issa said.
"The inspector general briefed the administration with details about the specific action of those responsible for gross waste, yet documents show that some political appointees believed even this year that the report could be kept private and the outrageous details dealt with quietly," Issa said.
"Some of those same senior political officials approved a bonus for Jeff Neely," Issa said.
Johnson became head of the GSA in February 2010. She was nominated to the post by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the Senate without opposition.
She noted in her testimony that she served with the GSA for five years during the administration of another Democratic president, Bill Clinton.
Johnson said during her first GSA tour, the agency had a strong leadership team that produced value for the U.S. government.
"When I returned to the GSA in February, 2010, the agency was not the same," Johnson said, adding that a quarter of the executive positions were vacant, labor relations were acrimonious and "strategy was non-existent."
"What I did not know until much later was there was yet another problem," Johnson said.
"The western regions' conference, which had been an economical, straightforward set of training sessions in the late 1990s, had evolved into a raucous, extravagant, arrogant, self-congratulatory event that ultimately belittled federal workers," Johnson said.
"Leaders apparently competed to show their people how much entertainment they could provide, rather than how much performance capability they could build," Johnson said.
The inspector general report on the conference cited catered parties in officials' hotel rooms as among the many questionable expenses.
In addition, it said $130,000 worth of scouting trips before the conference were wasteful and cited a $75,000 contract to an outside vendor for a team-building exercise that included the purchase of 24 bicycles.
(Reporting By Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)