Republican lawmakers tried Tuesday to tie the spending scandal at the General Services Administration to the White House, pressing current and former agency officials to explain why they met with senior administration officials two weeks before disciplining most of the implicated officials.
At a congressional hearing Tuesday, former GSA Administrator Martha Johnson acknowledged that she met with several top White House officials — including chief of staff Jack Lew and Personnel Director Nancy Hogan — as early as mid-March about the scandal.
Johnson put Region 9 Public Building Regional Commissioner Jeffrey Neely on leave on March 19. But she didn't resign and discipline other top agency officials until the GSA's inspector general officially released a report April 2 documenting lavish spending for a Las Vegas conference in 2010 that cost $823,000.
The GSA, which manages federal properties, is also being investigated for how resources were spent on other outings and conferences, including trips to Hawaii, Atlanta and Napa, Calif., and an interns' conference in Palm Springs, Calif., attended by 150 people.
Neely, the official at the center of the scandal, wasn't present at Tuesday's hearing. On Monday, Neely repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
As Republicans tried to suggest a cover-up by the White House, Johnson testified Tuesday that she never spoke to President Barack Obama, but she said she did have "informational" meetings with other top administration officials the weeks of March 18 and March 25.
Besides Lew and Hogan, officials from the White House counsel's office and the president's communications staff attended some of those meetings, Johnson said.
"Those meetings were about policy," Johnson told Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., head of the Transportation subcommittee on public buildings. "We wanted to talk with them about travel policy, because obviously they are interested in how we can move forward after this event."
Denham pressed Johnson to explain why it took "all the way up to April 2nd" to fire Stephen Leeds, her chief counsel, and Bob Peck, head of the public building department, and "to put all of the other administrators on leave."
"I was working particularly with our HR (human resources) senior executives and a senior executive in the general counsel's office to understand what was the particular evidence that the IG had uncovered and how we could fit that into letters of admonishment and what kinds of disciplinary action we could take," Johnson replied, adding that "there's a due process here that we needed to follow."
In an interview with CNN before the hearing, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, made it clear that Republicans believe "people did let the White House know, and the White House did not choose to intervene or to take action early on."
But Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., ranking Democrat on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee and a member of Mica's committee, pointed out that it was a Democratic appointee, Deputy GSA Administrator Susan Brita, "who brought this to light."
Neely and others implicated in the scandal "will be brought to justice and be made to pay back the money they owe the taxpayers," Cummings said in an interview with NBC News' Andrea Mitchell.
Mica said he and Denham were examining whether the GSA's culture of squandering could be purged or whether the agency — "our government's landlord" — should be replaced.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who represents the District of Columbia, disagreed with Denham and Mica, saying, "GSA serves an indispensable function."
That's what makes the investigation "such a difficult matter," said Norton, who was lampooned in a widely circulated video the GSA made at the conference.
In his opening statement, Peck said the Las Vegas conference was an "aberration" and that most conferences he attended weren't lavish. He said he paid for some food out of his pocket in Las Vegas.
Peck also offered a personal apology and said he wouldn't shirk responsibility.