Senator raps USDA for travel spending

The Agriculture Department spent millions sending employees to conferences at resorts and casinos in fiscal 2006, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said in a recent report.

The May 16 oversight report examines conference spending by USDA, which has almost tripled its conference spending since 2000. In 2006, USDA spent $19.4 million to send 20,959 employees to 6,719 conferences and training activities nationwide and around the world. Since 2000, the department has spent $90.5 million on conferences, according to the report.

Coburn issued the report as the ranking member of  Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services and International Security.
These conferences included USDA employee travel to a seminar about Congress at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Beach Resort and Spa in Hawaii, a pollution control conference at the Westin St. John Resort and Villas in the Virgin Islands, and a conference on fungus in Cairns, Australia. Employees also attended a conference on “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” in Las Vegas, the report said.

The report said USDA employees traveled to:

  • Fifty-nine separate conferences for 270 employees in Orlando, Fla., at a cost of $282,656.

  • Ninety-four separate conferences in Las Vegas, many at resort casinos, at a cost of $254,755 for 213 USDA employees.

  • Twenty-eight separate conferences in Hawaii for 64 USDA employees at a total cost of $130,600.

“USDA is not alone. The agency, the first in this conference oversight series, is just one among many federal agencies that [have] overspent on nonessential conferences and travel,” Coburn said.

Federal agencies have spent more than $2 billion on conferences from 2000 through 2006, increasing more than 95 percent, from $200 million a year in 2000 to nearly $400 million a year in 2006, the report states.

Coburn has tracked how much agencies spend sending employees to meetings and conferences since 2001 and recommended that all agencies put their conference spending reports online.

“Government agencies must overcome their ‘spring break’ mentality when it comes to conference travel and work toward utilizing taxpayer dollars more efficiently,” Coburn said.

USDA said the cost of conferences is about 0.02 percent of its total expenditures.

“When used appropriately, conferences can have a tremendous public benefit,”  USDA spokesman Keith Williams said. He cited meetings to bring food to disaster victims and developing nations and those allowing minority farmers to interact with USDA officials.

USDA recently reviewed and revised its conference policy, including doing more education online, he said. The department has implemented an online training system, and last year employees completed one million courses. Some subjects lend themselves to training by video or Web seminar, others require meeting in person, such as for training the trainer, Williams said. Some meetings are set up because the participants do not have the technology to support an online conference, he added.

Coburn said agencies should send employees to conferences only if the meetings advance the mission, the information cannot be accessed online or through scholarly publications, the location and number of employees attending is appropriate and justified, and the funds could not have been spent on a higher priority.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.


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