WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An federal government training conference deteriorated over the past decade from a productive annual gathering into "a raucous, extravagant, arrogant" event, a former U.S. government administrator said on Monday.
Testifying at a congressional hearing, Martha Johnson, who resigned under pressure this month as head the General Services Administration, accepted responsibility and apologized.
"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.
The GSA, with nearly 13,000 employees, manages federal buildings and purchases government supplies.
Jeff Neely, the senior official who organized the 2010 conference, appeared at the hearing but refused to answer questions, citing his right against self-incrimination.
"On the advice of counsel, I respectfully decline," said the career government worker, who is on administrative leave, pending further investigation and possible criminal charges.
The hearing by the Republican-led House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee examined the 2010 GSA western regional conference in Las Vegas for 300 workers.
The four-day conference cost U.S. taxpayers $823,000, featured a comic, a clown and a mind reader and recently exploded into an election-year spending scandal that has drawn criticism from both Republicans and Democrats.
Three more hearings on the conference are planned this week by House and Senate panels, which will give lawmakers more opportunities to express their outrage in front of television cameras.
Representative Elijah Cummings, the senior Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, argued against granting Neely immunity from prosecution in exchange for his cooperation.
According to federal investigators, Cummings said, "Mr. Neely engaged in an indefensible and intolerable pattern of misconduct, including repeatedly violating federal travel and procurement rules."
The GSA's office of inspector general this month released a year-long investigative report into the conference, finding a number of concerns and abuses.
Republican congressman Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, criticized the administration for failing to expose conference abuses earlier. He noted that GSA officials were informed of the inspector general's investigation nearly a year ago.
"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 ($9,000) bonus for Jeff Neely," he 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 former President Bill Clinton.
Johnson said during her first GSA tour, the agency had a strong leadership team that produced value for the 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 region's 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.
"(GSA) leaders apparently competed to show their people how much entertainment they could provide, rather than how much performance capability they could build," Johnson said.
Reporting By Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Christopher Wilson