UPDATE: On Wednesday morning, sources provided ABC News with records and documentation showing Martha Johnson did not travel to California to meet with Solyndra, and was in Virginia and Oregon for other meetings and activities. Read the updated story here.
(WASHINGTON) — Former General Services Administration administrator Martha Johnson missed a lavish Las Vegas conference for government employees because she was already committed to meetings in California at Solyndra, according to testimony in an official government investigation.
Solyndra is the now-bankrupt green energy company that the Obama administration had provided with a $535 million loan through the stimulus.
The development, if true, dovetails together two embarrassing but otherwise unrelated episodes for the Obama administration.
According to a 52-page transcript from the Inspector General investigator’s March 15, 2011 interview with Jeff Neely, a regional administrator currently on administrative leave, Neely explained that GSA incurred some unanticipated expenses for a last-minute video link for four assistant commissioners assigned to participate at the conference in Johnson’s place.
Adam Elkington, a spokesman for GSA, disputes the testimony of Neely, claiming that Johnson did not attend meetings at Solyndra that day. Elkington, however, was unable to explain where Johnson was during the conference.
According to the testimony transcript, in response to a question about Johnson, Neely explained the need for extra audio/visual expenses because Johnson couldn’t attend the conference.
“Martha was actually coming to the West Coast and we had invited her to participate, but the events that she was coming to the West Coast for; one was a meeting with Salindra [sic], who is down to the San Jose area,” Neely answered, although the transcript incorrectly spelled the Fremont, Calif.-based business.
GSA ended up forking over $3,500 for the four assistant administrators to participate in a video-teleconference, according to Neely in the IG interview transcript.
ABC News was able to view a copy of the transcript, but it is not currently available to the public.
“Maybe some of those contract costs were related to that last minute change, because they were supposed to come present in person and then decided to do it via video,” Neely explained. “We said we would try this as an experiment. I, personally, explained to them that I had some concerns about this because we were spending $3,500.00 to save $1,500.00 in travel.”
At the time, the Department of Energy was working to help enable GSA to purchase Solyndra solar panels for rooftops of federal buildings, which some critics believed was an attempt to prop up the doomed company with more federal money.
Earlier Tuesday, GSA acting administrator Dan Tangherlini apologized for GSA’s conduct, and announced the agency had suspended a separate “Hats Off” incentive program for employees.
“What took place was completely unacceptable,” Tangherlini said in a video statement posted to YouTube. “Those responsible violated rules of common sense, the spirit of public service, and the trust that America’s taxpayers have placed in all of us.”
The agency spent about $823,000 on the 2010 convention for 300 employees, including thousands of dollars spent on items such as a commemorative coin set, a mind reader, a comedian and a clown.
Johnson resigned abruptly after the GSA inspector general presented findings of abuse and waste of taxpayer dollars from the conference. Seven other officials have resigned, been fired or suspended in the wake of the scandal.
Multiple congressional hearings are scheduled to investigate the matter when Congress returns to session next week.
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