GSA spends $270k for music, food and picture frames at awards ceremony

The General Services Administration is once again in the spotlight for apparently lavish spending at an agency event.

The GSA Inspector General is investigating an awards ceremony for GSA employees in 2010 that cost $268,732. According to preliminary findings, the event was held at the Crystal City Marriott in Arlington, Va., and officials spent more than $35,000 for 4,000 "time temperature picture frames," $20,000 for catering charges as well as paying for a violinist and guitarist.

Brian Miller, the procurement agency’s IG, informed the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee July 19 of his preliminary findings, provoking the anger of some committee members.

“GSA’s pattern of waste and abuse continues,” Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said July 19.

However, “instead of clowns and mind readers, we’ve got violinists and guitarists. GSA has really classed up their act,” said Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), chairman of the committee’s Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management Subcommittee. Denham has called for closing down GSA in the past.

A GSA spokesperson said on July 24 that the awards ceremony has been happening annually since 2002, but GSA's new leader will put a stop to it.

"These events indicate an already recognized pattern of misjudgment which spans several years and administrations. It must stop, and is why Acting Administrator Tangherlini has instituted several stringent new policies on spending to put an end to this misuse of taxpayer dollars," said Betsaida Alcantara, GSA's communications director.

Last week, Tangherlini cut executive bonuses and instituted a hiring freeze across the agency. He has consolidated oversight of conference and travel expenses in the new Office of Administrative Services. Furthermore, he has canceled 36 conferences and directed the new office to review each planned future conference to make sure that they and any related travel is justified.

Still the annual conference upset lawmakers. Reps. Nick Rahall (D-W.V.), the committee’s ranking member, and Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), subcommittee’s ranking member, said they were very concerned by the conference spending habits.

“It is deeply troubling to learn that more than a quarter million dollars in hard-earned taxpayer money was wasted so that certain GSA employees could congratulate themselves,” Rahall said in a statement.

But they also applauded GSA’s acting administrator Dan Tangherlini for bringing the ceremony to the IG’s attention for an investigation.

Tangherlini arrived when the first conference spending fiasco blew up in April, causing former Administrator Martha Johnson to resign. GSA’s Western Regions 2010 conference in Las Vegas cost more than $822,000. The expenses included multiple “planning trips” and “test runs” in which GSA employees stayed at luxury hotels.

GSA is also getting it from the other side of Capitol Hill. Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, raised their voices about GSA.

“It is clear the Las Vegas conference scandal was not an isolated instance, but the canary in the coal mine,” Lieberman said July 19. He added that Tangherlini’s top-to-bottom review of the entire agency is essential as are additional IG investigations.

“At a time when Congress must make the toughest budget choices we have ever made, I am sickened to hear more stories about the reckless disregard GSA shows for taxpayer dollars,” he said.

Collins summed up the thinking: “This is simply unacceptable.”

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Reader comments

Sat, Aug 4, 2012 RG

Its clear all of these conferences took place during Martha Johnson's time at GSA and this is no fluke. What I am wondering is if there are any other intentions of the GSA IG in conducting these aggressive investigations? Johnson was always toe to toe with the IG almost from Day 1 of her tenure. The IG also had a vendetta against one of the previous administrators Lurita Doan. I'm not saying there isn't something broader at work here to their investigation but it seems a little bizarre that all these conferences must be investigated and coming out at the same time when they could have been reported much earlier? The IG should realize that GSA must continue to exist in order for it to continue functioning as a regular part of the government. If the GSA goes away, then the IG will go away as well. They clearly can't be that stupid.

Wed, Jul 25, 2012

@Steve: i think most people believe that the vast majority of public employees have the country's best interests at heart. as a former JS-13, i saw first hand how our office operated on a threadbare budget. but that's really my beef: our country was founded on the concept of limited gov't. our gov't should be run on a limited budget! The fact that there are even a handful of folks out wasting taxpayer monies is a travesty...even with small amounts. When new generations of federal workers see that previous abuses were tolerated, it creates an atmosphere ripe for abuse. small problems then become bigger problems...and bigger problems become GSA and their rampant spending. It's got to stop. We need legislators to tighten their belts too; can't all be on the backs of fed workers.

Wed, Jul 25, 2012 SPMayor Summit Point, WV

We all need to be a bit more discerning in our reactions to this latest conference disclosure. First, common sense tells us recognizing the accomplishments of employees is important.One might choose to be a critic of 'Government' and also recognize that individual employees do a better than average job - those views are not mutually exclusive. In one form or another recognizing employees individually or a in a group/organization environment has associated costs - those costs aggregate into a value some find excessive and others find acceptable. While 'thank you and atta-boys' are free they are inadequate; a job done well merits expending and awarding money to individuals and teams. Could the costs have been better managed and more wisely spent - yes but there is no underlying appearance of illegal,immoral or 'fattening'conduct.More than anything else poor judgment ... but only in hind sight and most vocally by those who seem to make a habit of walking through an event after it happens looking for reasons to voice their discontent. While better and more responsible direction is needed in these events it would serve the critics well to assess their own behavior and conduct in similar matters. Congress has its own events of embarassment and irresponsibility that need to be dealt with more directly.

Wed, Jul 25, 2012

I wonder when they start looking at the travel of agency heads and senior executives. All of those trips that they make to meet with corporations rather than having the companies come to meet at the Government location. Now there's a LOT of wasted dollars.

Wed, Jul 25, 2012 Linda

The righteous indignation of the congressional reps is rich.

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