By Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. government official at the center of an election-year spending scandal kept traveling far and wide at taxpayers' expense - long after his boss was advised a year ago of suspected abuses, according to a congressional review released on Tuesday.
The official, Jeff Neely, made four-day visits in March to Hawaii and Napa, California, just days before he was placed on leave at the General Services Administration, pending further investigation and possible criminal charges, the review showed.
In February, Neely, who refused to testify before Congress on Monday, citing his right against self-incrimination, made a five-day trip to Atlanta and a 17-day trip to Hawaii, Guam and Saipon.
"You allowed these trips to continue?" Republican Representative Jeff Denham, who released the review, angrily asked former GSA administrator Martha Johnson, who resigned under pressure this month.
"I'm amazed," said Denham, who accused the GSA of having a "culture of fraud, waste, corruption and coverups." He promised that Congress would dig deeper to expose all.
Denham made the comments at the second congressional hearing in as many days that has focused on a 2010 GSA training conference for 300 workers that Neely organized in Las Vegas. The GSA manages federal buildings and purchases government supplies.
The four-day gathering at a swank hotel cost $823,000, featured a comic, a clown and a mind reader - and has erupted into a scandal drawing Democratic and Republican fire.
With government spending a key issue in the November congressional and presidential elections, a third congressional hearing is set for Wednesday and a fourth on Thursday.
Denham's House transportation subcommittee released a two-page paper at the hearing based on its review of the GSA's own investigation.
Entitled, "Timeline of Investigation and Ongoing Travel Abuses," the paper showed that Neely continued to travel even after Johnson was first advised in May 2011 about suspected fraud and abuse at the October 2010 conference.
An email described as from Neely to his wife, Deb, in preparation for a 17-day February trip, read: "Its yo birfday ... we gonna pawty ...."
Neely's wife accompanied him on the trip, but it was not immediately clear if Neely, as required by law, covered her expenses. Denham asked the GSA's inspector general to determine who paid for it.
The inspector general's office is reviewing Neely's other trips. Their cost has not yet been tabulated, a congressional aide said.
The GSA's office of inspector general on April 2 released a yearlong investigative report into the 2010 conference, concluding that numerous GSA expenses were "excessive, wasteful and in some cases impermissible."
The report's release came nearly a year after GSA Inspector General Brian Miller gave then-GSA administrator Johnson an interim report on his findings.
While Neely, a GSA regional administrator, refused to testify at Monday's hearing, he declined an invitation to even appear at Tuesday's hearing.
(Reporting By Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Jackie Frank)