The first of several planned congressional hearings on the General Services Administration's costly 2010 conference saw a key figure in the controversy cite his Fifth Amendment rights six times, GSA's newly acting administrator say he has launched a "top to bottom" review of the agency, and House members from both parties grilling current and former GSA officials about the spending scandal.

The focus of the hearing, held April 16 by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, was an $822,000 GSA Public Buildings Service (PBS) conference  that an April 2 inspector general's report blasted as "excessive and wasteful." The day the report was released, GSA Administrator Martha Johnson resigned, after she had dismissed PBS chief Robert Peck and another top agency official.

PBS is an important federal construction agency, overseeing design and construction of courthouses, office buildings and other facilities. But throughout the House committee's hearing, which stretched for more than three hours, there was little discussion about GSA construction projects or policy.

There were a couple of mentions about disposing of unused federal real estate and Acting GSA Administrator Daniel Tangherlini told the committee he had
directed the agency's chief financial officer to take direct control of the budgets of GSA's 11 regional offices.

Afterwards, Tangherlini, who has been in his new post for only two weeks, answered a few questions from a small group of reporters. He declined to say how long his agency-wide review would take. But he said that none of GSA's current or new construction projects had been cancelled or postponed.

The most dramatic part of the hearing came near the beginning, when Jeff Neely, a GSA regional administrator, "took the Fifth," declining to answer six questions from panel Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). Among other things, Issa asked Neely what his title was at at GSA and whether he is employed by the agency.

After Neely exercised his Fifth Amendment rights, he left the main hearing chamber for another room, where, Issa said, Neely was to listen to the rest of the lengthy hearing.

Neely has become a central figure in the controversy over the 2010 conference, held near Las Vegas. At the time of that gathering, Neely was in charge of GSA's San Francisco-based Region 9, which hosted the multi-region conference. He has been placed on administrative leave.

Johnson, who testified at the hearing, said she was "extremely aggrieved by the gall of a handful of a handful of people to misuse federal tax dollars, twist contracting rules and defile the great name of the General Services Administration." She also said she was "affronted by the insensitivity of the leaders to the culture they were condoning and am appalled that a handful of people can undercut public confidence in GSA and, indeed all of government."

Johnson also said it was her decision to resign, and that the White House didn't ask her to leave.

The oversight committee's hearing was just the beginning of the public airing of the GSA controversy on Capitol Hill. Next up is an April 17 hearing to be held by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which has jurisdiction over public buildings.