Jeff Neely, the embattled General Services Administration official at the center of a scandal over a lavish Las Vegas conference, was reprimanded in 2011 for appearing in a campaign ad for Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), documents obtained by Roll Call show.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel said Neely’s participation in the ad for Inouye’s 2010 re-election campaign violated the Hatch Act, but it did not discipline him beyond a warning.
The footage of Neely used in the ad was from a June 2010 groundbreaking ceremony heralding the $212 million renovation of the Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole Federal Building and Courthouse in Honolulu.
The project was part of the 2009 economic stimulus law and was designed to transition federally owned buildings into “high-performance green buildings,” according to a GSA prospectus.
“The man who provided the leadership, and the guidance, and the touch was Jeff Neely,” Inouye said at the ceremony, according to a video of the event.
“If it weren’t for him, if it weren’t for his leadership, we would not be here this morning to inaugurate the beginning of this process. On behalf of all of you and behalf of the people of Hawaii, Mr. Neely, we thank you very much,” Inouye said.
“Prior to the recent press reports, Senator Inouye and his staff were unaware of the disappointing allegations that Jeff Neely and his staff wasted and misused taxpayer funds. Neither Senator Inouye nor his staff knew Mr. Neely in anything other than a professional capacity. Senator Inouye and his staff worked with the GSA Region 9 office only on issues relevant to GSA’s mission,” said Peter Boylan, Inouye’s deputy chief of staff.
The revelations about Neely’s Hatch Act violation come as officials ramp up legislative efforts to address the GSA scandal.
On Tuesday, the Senate approved by voice vote an amendment that would reform spending and oversight for federal agency travel and conferences.
And on Wednesday, Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), the chairman of a House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee with jurisdiction over the GSA, introduced legislation requiring an annual audit of the agency, which he said has resisted his efforts to learn about its finances.
Denham and other top Republicans have called for Neely, who was placed on administrative leave March 20, to be fired. The GSA has not responded to the calls, but its employees are entitled to a disciplinary process.
A longtime GSA employee, Neely has not spoken in public about his conduct other than to decline to answer questions at an April 16 House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Aside from the campaign ad, Neely also gave some indication of his political leanings in interviews with GSA’s Office of Inspector General, complaining about “too much bashing of the Obama administration” at a private-sector business conference.
Neely’s lawyer is Preston Burton, a Washington, D.C.-based trial lawyer specializing in criminal law who has represented high-profile clients such as Monica Lewinsky and Aldrich Ames. Burton did not return a request for comment.
According to the OSC’s investigation of the Inouye campaign ad, Neely’s participation in the ceremony itself did not violate the Hatch Act because it “had nothing to do with any partisan political campaign or agenda.”
But after the ceremony, Alan Yamamoto, a representative of Inouye’s campaign, asked for Neely’s permission to use footage from the event in a campaign ad, according to a March 9, 2011, letter from the OSC.
Yamamoto told the OSC that Neely replied, “It was a public event. I don’t think I can control what happens at a public event or the use of pictures taken at a public event. So, go ahead.”
According to the OSC, Neely “indicated he made a similar response” but “did not admit saying ‘go ahead.’”
“Whether Mr. Neely did or did not say ‘go ahead,’ OSC finds his response unacceptable,” it said in the letter.
Neely “had control over whether he provided permission to the campaign to use his image in its advertisement” and should have refused, the letter said.
“Providing such consent constituted an act in concert with the Senator’s campaign. Thus, Mr. Neely violated the Hatch Act,” the letter from OSC Hatch Act Unit attorney Justin Martell said.
The OSC “decided not to pursue disciplinary action” but said it warned Neely that “if in the future he engages in Hatch Act prohibited activity … we would consider such activity to be a willful and knowing violation of the law that could result in his removal from his employment.”
Neely’s wife, Deborah, posted three items on her Facebook page with photographs from the groundbreaking that were “related to Senator Inouye’s campaign,” the letter said, but the OSC cleared Neely of Hatch Act violations for those posts because there was no evidence that Neely himself was responsible for the posts.
The letter from the OSC was sent to John Garvey and Curtis Phelps at the American Federation of Government Employees, which initiated a complaint against Neely over the issue.
GSA’s OIG initially revealed in an April 2 report that the agency spent about $823,000 on an October 2010 Las Vegas conference for about 300 people, along with a series of colorful expenses that drove up the cost, including a mind reader, clown and bicycle construction team-building exercise.
In the wake of the report, a total of 13 GSA employees have either resigned, been fired or have been placed on administrative leave, including the former administrator, Martha Johnson.
According to documents obtained by Roll Call, GSA officials invented awards as an excuse to hold taxpayer-funded dinner events at conferences, including bestowing a “jackass award” on an employee.