Behind the scenes at GSA investigation

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Washington (CNN) — General Services Administration officials involved in a lavish $800,000 Las Vegas conference are expected to speak out about the controversial gathering for the first time Monday before a House committee investigating it.

The House Oversight Committee hearing, the first on the spending scandal, will also look to the culture at the agency to “make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Chairman Darrell Issa, R-California, said.

“What often happens is, an (inspector general) does their job, perhaps some people are held accountable, but the culture doesn’t change,” Issa said. It must be clear that there is “zero tolerance for this” and that the culture will be changed, he said.

Nearly two weeks ago, GSA Administrator Martha Johnson stepped down as the Obama administration revealed details of the 2010 convention at a Las Vegas casino.

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Videos then surfaced of David Foley, a deputy commissioner of the Public Buildings Service, appearing to mock congressional oversight. In it, he gave a talent show award to an employee whose video featured a rap about spending too much and joking about avoiding investigation.

The administration released additional videos to selective media outlets of employees seeming to make fun of President Barack Obama, as well as a fake red carpet ceremony with Jeff Neely, a deputy GSA commissioner, boasting that his goal was to make the conference, which he helped organize, over the top.

Johnson, Foley and Neely were all invited to testify at Monday’s hearing, along with GSA Inspector General Brian Miller.

Issa said Neely was the only witness they had to subpoena, but they expect Neely to plead the Fifth Amendment, which protects against self-incrimination, rather than testify before the committee.

Among other things, Issa said Neely and others were “taking lots of trips with their families for vacation weekends and billing it to preparation for this conference.”

One of the central questions Issa has is this: Why was Johnson briefed on the investigation about the conference 11 months ago and sat on the information? Issa says he does not know whether Johnson made the White House aware, but he says that’s irrelevant since she was an Obama appointee.

“Let’s remember when you’re a political appointee, you’re there for two reasons. One is, you have the confidence of the president to execute, and the second is you’re the eyes and ears of the president. … There were too many people who knew about this, and e-mails as late as early this year that they were implying that they’d never have to make this public,” said Issa.

He also said he wants to drill down on a problem at the GSA that he has found at other government agencies: the awarding of no-bid contracts.

“We hold them to the highest standard of no single bidding and no simply cozying up with their friends, which is the reason we have to have more scrutiny,” he said.

Issa and the committee staff spent Sunday preparing for the hearing.

In one room of the committee’s offices, Issa’s chief investigator and a few other aides were meeting. They noted that the GSA inspector general has been quite cooperative with the committee, turning over videos, interview transcripts and other information on his excess spending investigation.

“This is a very efficient investigation by comparison to the ones in which the administration is fighting us,” Issa said.

Issa admits over-the-top GSA spending existed during the previous Bush administration, though he disputes figures released by Obama officials that show a 102% increase from 2006 to 2008.

So why not invite Bush officials to testify as well? Issa insisted that he intends to do that later but says first he will focus on the president currently in the White House.

“This president ran saying he was going to make changes. The question is, was he well-served by his political appointees when they were ordered to go in and make these cultural changes, and if they didn’t make it, is it because they didn’t listen to the president, or is it because he didn’t really mean it?” he asked.

For all of his criticism of Obama administration, why did Issa, who took over the powerful House Oversight Committee in 2011 vowing to expose government waste, rely on the GSA inspector general to find it?

“Were you asleep at the switch?” CNN asked.

“We’re never feeling like we’re doing enough,” Issa replied.

He also called this an “unusual situation in which we weren’t given a heads-up 11 months ago by the IG,” he said.

“We have 120 people between the majority and minority on this committee. The IG is 12,000 people; by definition we rely on the vast majority of information to come from the inspectors general and from the 3,000 people at the GAO. That’s part of our processes,” said Issa.

He argued that a big problem at the GSA is the way it reports its budgets, which he says makes them murky and hard to decipher.

“For example, there were 10 trips costing $172,000 from that $800,000 that were just people going out and basically having party weekends in the planning process, and if you look into where the excesses were that are not being reported, it’s not just the clown, it’s also the people that had vacation weekends with their family again and again and again in the name of this conference. It is hard to find that in a top line figure. It’s what the IG helped us find,” said Issa.

Issa brought CNN into another aide’s office to show two other things the GSA inspector general help find: a coin GSA officials made to commemorate their lavish Las Vegas conference, which cost taxpayers $6,300, and a souvenir book, which cost $8,000.

“We’re not talking about wooing customers. We’re talking about simply spending money on themselves at taxpayer expense,” Issa said. “Just to have a good time.”

CNN’s Stacey Samuel contributed to this report.

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