GSA spent $28 million on taxpayer-funded conferences since 2005

Posted June 14, 2012, at 7:46 p.m.

WASHINGTON —The U.S. General Services Administration, under investigation for excessive spending at a Las Vegas conference, almost tripled its expenditures for such events from 2005 to 2010.

Taxpayers paid $27.8 million for more than 200 overnight gatherings attended by at least 50 GSA employees since 2005, according to records obtained in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. The destinations included New Orleans; Orlando, Fla.; and Palm Springs, Calif.

Lawmakers have been scrutinizing the agency since an inspector general report on April 2 revealed the 2010 Las Vegas event had cost more than $800,000. Since then, GSA Administrator Martha Johnson has resigned, and the inspector general has referred the matter to the Department of Justice.

“Starting with the Bush administration, GSA has wanted to be ‘more like business,’ but they seem to have picked up more of the vices than the virtues,” said Charles Tiefer, a former member of the Commission on Wartime Contracting. “These conferences look less like learning experiences and more like rewards for favored subordinates.”

Spending on the GSA events jumped from $2.66 million in 2005 to a high of $7.38 million in 2010, the year of the Las Vegas junket. It declined to $3.23 million in 2011, while the agency’s inspector general was working on the report.

Top GSA officials received a draft of the document in May 2011, according to Inspector General Brian Miller’s testimony to Congress in April.

“The spending on conferences has gotten less bloated since 2010, but it could still use a period on a diet,” said Tiefer, a professor at the University of Baltimore Law School. “There are these guys called ‘auditors.’ Maybe the GSA should invite them over for a spell.”

Adam Elkington, a GSA spokesman, didn’t immediately comment.

Dan Tangherlini, the new acting administrator for GSA, told lawmakers in April that he had canceled 35 GSA conferences in response to the inspector general report, saving taxpayers $995,686. On April 15, Tangherlini issued a memorandum stating that “all travel for internal GSA meetings, training, conferences, seminars, leadership or management events” would be suspended until the end of the fiscal year, with some exceptions.

The agency spent $840,616 on the Las Vegas event, according to the records, about $17,000 more than the inspector general previously reported.

The conference had the second-highest cost per attendee at $3,002, an amount surpassed by the $4,354-a-person spent at a 2009 event on child care at the Walt Disney World Buena Vista Palace Hotel in Orlando. That gathering offered seminars and training on topics such as childhood obesity and outdoor playgrounds, according to a GSA press release.

The agency helps oversee child-care facilities for federal employees.

GSA spent the most money on conferences in Orlando, where it hosted a dozen events at a cost of $3.55 million from 2005. Las Vegas came in second, with 10 conferences at $3.4 million. New Orleans was No. 3, with seven gatherings for $1.74 million.

Last year, the agency spent the most money in San Diego, where the agency held its annual “Expo.”

GSA Expos, described on an agency website as its “signature training” for federal, state and local government employees, were some of the most costly events. The three-day Expo in 2011 cost $1.02 million. Of the more than 2,900 people registered for the event, 626 were GSA employees.

The agency broke down the costs of each conference into travel and non-travel costs. It didn’t provide itemized spending. Travel costs have represented about 47 percent of the total spending since 2005.

The number of GSA employees rose less than 1 percent to 12,739 employees last year from 12,666 employees in September 2005, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

The GSA, which manages property and purchases goods and services for other government agencies, held its Las Vegas gathering at the M Resort Spa Casino in Henderson, Nevada.

The event featured a mind reader, clown and a $75,000 bicycle-building exercise, according to the inspector general. The spending also included $8,130 to print “yearbooks” for participants and $6,325 for commemorative coins.

Breakfasts were provided at a price of $44 a person, more than triple the $12-a-person government allowance for Las Vegas, according to the report.

President Obama was “outraged by the excessive spending, questionable dealings with contractors and disregard for taxpayer dollars,” Jacob Lew, White House chief of staff, said in an April 2 e-mailed statement.

Lawmakers have criticized the agency’s spending at other events. Agency interns and executives traveled to a five-day event in Palm Springs in May 2010, according to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. A catered awards ceremony was provided at $75 to $100 per person.

The entire event cost taxpayers $262,922, according to the GSA records.

Miller, the inspector general, told a congressional subcommittee that his office had been investigating other GSA trips and conferences. Also under scrutiny is an employee-reward program that offered Apple iPods and other electronics as prizes, he said.

Robert Burton, former acting administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, said the amount of money GSA spent on conferences isn’t necessarily wasteful, but the agency needs to identify excess such as the clown hired in Las Vegas.

“The objective shouldn’t be to never to have a conference again in the federal government,” said Burton, now a partner at the law firm Venable LLP in Washington. “It’s the wasteful spending, regardless of the amount, that the government needs to be concerned about.”

With assistance from Carol Wolf, Nick Taborek and Charles Babcock in Washington.

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