Before the bureaucrat in the bathtub became the most famous face in the overspending scandal at the General Services Administration, Jeffrey Neely was a relatively anonymous public employee managing federal buildings in Arizona, California, Hawaii, and Nevada.
Neely, 57, went to Congress this week to testify about the scandal over the GSA’s spending at a 2010 conference in Las Vegas. He repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment rights, refusing even to provide his job title.
Investigators are looking into the involvement his wife had in planning GSA events as well as taxpayer-funded trips the couple took to locations like Hawaii, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. Neely helped to plan the $823,000 2010 conference that included a clown, a bike-building exercise and a mind reader. News outlets dug up photos of his family vacation in Hawaii that his daughter posted on Facebook and photos from various GSA trips that his wife posted on Google Plus.
Details about Neely’s background have been relatively limited and a GSA official told TPM the agency didn’t keep biographies for officials at Neely’s level. Here’s what we know based on news stories and publicly available information.
Neely lived in suburban Maryland just outside of Washington, D.C. through the 1990s, according to public records. He had been at the GSA since at least 1995, when he was quoted in a Washington Post story after being on a jury that sentenced a man convicted of a triple murder to death. “I can’t speculate on why the death penalty isn’t brought more often in Montgomery County,” Neely told the newspaper at the time. “I can only tell you that it is a challenging thing for a group of jurors to have to deal with.”
He moved out to California in the early 2000s, became the assistant regional administrator of Public Building Services and eventually acting commissioner of the GSA’s Pacific Rim region. His home was a modest brown two story on a quiet street in Mills Valley, Calif. A Ford SUV with a Hawaii decal on the back window sat in the driveway when Google’s streetview car came around.
Neely regularly attended groundbreakings and ribbon cuttings for government buildings in his region. He was occasionally quoted or wrote for GSA’s website, like the time when the agency used goats to cut down on overgrowth and underbrush outside a federal courthouse in California or when he broke ground on an Arizona courthouse named for the late Judge John M. Roll, who was killed in the attack that injured former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ).
Tom Lorentzen, a former GSA official who worked with Neely for a number of years, told the San Francisco Chronicle that Neely was intoxicated by power and ego and considered the Pacific Rim “his fiefdom.”
One employee told GSA investigators that a regional director was “squashed like a bug” for questioning Neely on conferences and travel.
“He felt like this was his own program — it wasn’t a government program — and he owned it. Once you start to think like that, you get into trouble,” Lorentzen said.
The GSA Inspector General recommended that Neely’s case be referred to the Justice Department for criminal investigation. He’s currently on leave from the agency and has declined interview requests.