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

GSA's event spending has once again put the agency in Congressional crosshairs -- this time over a $270,000 award ceremony, complete with a violinist and 4,000 elaborate picture frames. This time, however, the agency's leadership may be ahead of the lawmakers.

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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