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By Phil Piemonte

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How the Vegas conference fiasco could spell disaster for feds

This time of year means spring break for a lot of people. A lot of kids are out of school, including those big kids in Congress.

As a result, the news out of Washington usually slows down considerably. Federal employees, whose pay and benefits have been under assault in Congress for close to two years, ordinarily would have heaved a sigh of relief during a recess. Or at least stopped holding their breath. But maybe not this time.

This time the news out of Washington actually purred right on, thanks to a story that seems custom-tailored to fill the news vacuum created by the congressional recess — enough for several news cycles, anyway.

That story, of course, is the General Services Administration conference debacle.

The problem for federal employees is that it’s one more news story that characterizes feds (a handful of them, at least) as bad actors, and it comes at a time when feds (the 2 million-plus others) see their pay and benefits under attack. The last thing feds need in this legislative environment is for the public to associate federal employees with wasteful bureaucrats.

The conference story broke in the wake of the release of an April 2 “management deficiency report” from GSA’s inspector general. That report contains details of a lavish 2010 Western Regions Conference held by GSA’s Public Buildings Service at the M Resort Spa Casino outside Las Vegas. The conference, held for about 300 attendees, cost $822,751, according to the IG’s tally.

Here’s one item from the IG report:

“GSA spending on conference planning was excessive, wasteful, and in some cases impermissible. To select a venue and plan the conference, GSA employees conducted two ‘scouting trips,’ five off-site planning meetings, and a ‘dry run.’ Six of these planning events took place at the M Resort (the conference venue) itself. Travel expenses for conference planning totaled $100,405.37, and catering costs totaled over $30,000. GSA spent money on refreshment breaks during the planning meetings, which it had no authority to do, and the cost of catered meals at those meetings exceeded per diem limits.”

You get the picture.

Among other things, the IG found that GSA failed to follow contracting regulations in many of the procurements associated with the conference, incurred excessive and impermissible costs for food, and spent money on questionable things like mementos, clothing and tuxedo rentals.

In something of an understatement, the IG concluded: “GSA’s approach to the conference indicates that minimizing expenses was not a goal.”

GSA, as the report noted, agreed with the findings, and said it would impose controls. The expenses were clearly out of line. But try doing damage control on a story like this — especially during an economic recovery. It can’t be done.

In the past few days, Americans across the country have learned — in broadcast and print — about GSA’s over-the-top expenses, the resignation of GSA Administrator Martha Johnson, and the firing of Public Buildings Service Commissioner Robert Peck. They learned that Johnson’s successor also decided to cancel several similar upcoming conferences. Oops.

And while he might be on break, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), apparently not wholly satisfied with the IG's effort to get to the bottom of things, announced he would launch his own investigation into what he has dubbed the GSA junket.

The day after Mica’s announcement, Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) joined him to ask GSA to provide information on another matter as well — an awards program that the two lawmakers said used “$200,000 worth of taxpayer funds for iPods, electronics, [and] gift cards” to reward GSA employees “for dubious reasons.”

Mica told reporters that the 2010 Las Vegas conference “is just the tip of the iceberg.”

“GSA’s habitual mismanagement of taxpayer-owned assets is what makes spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a conference for bureaucrats so appalling,” he said.

Bureaucrats. There’s that common theme: Taxpayers are getting nailed to pay for bureaucrats.

In a week or so, Congress will reconvene to hammer out — hopefully not with a $435 hammer — pending bills that are destined to set the course for your pay and benefits.

Just hope, in this election year, that the GSA junket hasn’t gotten some of those lawmakers into more of a lather than they were when they left.

Posted by Phil Piemonte on Apr 06, 2012 at 12:13 PM


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Reader comments

Tue, Apr 17, 2012 Rodger Washington DC

Of course, members of Congress never waste taxpayer funds. LOL I recall that members of Congress love to take trips to exotic places on the public's dime. Some organization ought to fight back on behalf of Federal workers by demonstrating that Congress wastes taxpayer money. Note: I agree that some of GSA's leaders were incredibly dense and should have known better. Didn't GSA leadership think about possible political implications of such excessive conference expenses? Apparently not. We have some equally stupid people at my agency, e.g., permitting alcohol at the holiday party.

Wed, Apr 11, 2012 Guillermo Mid-America

Heads ought to roll at GSA. I can't see the same thing happening at DHS as it's initials actually stand for "Don't Have Squat." Travel $$$ is tight and almost all lateral transfers are now "pay your own move." We can't even get oil changes on vehicles on time - most when you start 'em up a warning comes on "Oil Change Past Due."

Wed, Apr 11, 2012 Ken Virginia

I am retired from the Department of Justice. When we held conferences at which a small breakfast -- coffee, pastries, fruit, and fruit juice -- was served, we had to foot the bill out of our own pockets. When I traveled overseas, I was required to give trinkets with a DOJ seal to my hosts. DOJ provided none of the funds to pay for these items, the cost came out of my pocket. During the two year period before I retired in 2008, we were required to hold our very necessary annual conference at a government facility.

Wed, Apr 11, 2012 Ken Virginia

I am retired from the Department of Justice. When we held conferences at which a small breakfast -- coffee, pastries, fruit, and fruit juice -- was served, we had to foot the bill out of our own pockets. When I traveled overseas, I was required to give trinkets with a DOJ seal to my hosts. DOJ provided none of the funds to pay for these items, the cost came out of my pocket. During the two year period before I retired in 2008, we were required to hold our very necessary annual conference at a government facility.

Wed, Apr 11, 2012 Ken Virginia

I am retired from the Department of Justice. When we held conferences at which a small breakfast -- coffee, pastries, fruit, and fruit juice -- was served, we had to foot the bill out of our own pockets. When I traveled overseas, I was required to give trinkets with a DOJ seal to my hosts. DOJ provided none of the funds to pay for these items, the cost came out of my pocket. During the two year period before I retired in 2008, we were required to hold our very necessary annual conference at a government facility.

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