The man at the heart of the GSA scandal

Flickr user goodladyducayne

Jeffrey E. Neely, a longtime General Services Administration executive, now finds himself at the center of a burgeoning scandal surrounding a lavish 2010 Public Buildings Service conference held at a resort near Las Vegas. He has been identifed as the manager who insisted that planners organize an "over the top" event for employees.

The Washington Post reported Friday that Neely,  commissioner of PBS's Pacific Rim region, initially approved a $300,000 budget for the event, but later boosted the spending limit to more than $800,000. He personally went on five of the eight planning trips that agency officials made to plan the conference. 

In 2005, Government Executive's Shawn Zeller interviewed Neely in connection with a story on successful leaders in government. Here are excerpts from that report:

In the mid-1970s, Jeffrey Neely was swimming for the Army. While many of his fellow soldiers were doing training drills, Neely was racing and coaching a competitive military swim team in Germany. The swimmers traveled to bases in Europe and raced against other teams.

Neely was so good that, as a teen, some wanted him to try out for the Olympics. He even raced against nine-time gold medal winner Mark Spitz, though he admits that Spitz won by a wide margin.

Neely remembers his decision not to pursue that goal as a formative moment. "I learned to be successful," he recalls. "It has to be about what you want, not what others want you to do."

He enjoyed swimming but knew he didn't have the passion to pursue it full time. But Neely's ability to set priorities as an athlete, he says, has informed his drive at the General Services Administration.

Neely joined GSA in 1978, after leaving the Army. He set his sights on a goal: become an assistant regional administrator, one of the top civil service positions at the agency.

Now 50, Neely achieved his goal in 2003, when he joined the Senior Executive Service and was appointed assistant regional administrator for GSA's Public Buildings Service in San Francisco. In that post, he's responsible for 35 million square feet of federally owned and leased real estate in Arizona, California, Nevada, Hawaii and the Pacific territories.

Foremost on his mind at the moment: building a $400 million courthouse in Los Angeles.

"I knew I wanted that job, and I set myself to doing that by working in lots of different places," says Neely. "Intentionally, I got myself into lots of different pieces of PBS, because I knew I would need that experience."

Part of being a leader is knowing your work better than anyone else. It's about making the life sacrifices to get you there, sacrifices that win respect because others are unwilling to make them. Neely, for example, has spent years working in GSA outposts: San Francisco; Kansas City, Mo.; Honolulu; Reno, Nev.; and the agency's Washington headquarters.

"He excelled in every job," says Carl Votteler, a lead program analyst with GSA's Office of National Customer Services Management.

Neely is a tireless traveler, regularly visiting his 550 employees. "I want folks to be sure I'm interested in what they are doing. . . . I think you rise up in the ranks when you can create energy in a group of people," he says.

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