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Posted at 11:40 AM ET, 04/20/2012

GSA Vegas scandal prompts bills that would gut spending on federal agency conferences

First comes the scandal. Then comes the legislation designed to stop it from happening again.


Witnesses are sworn in Monday at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the General Services Administration’s spending scandal. (Chip Somodevilla - Getty Images)
At least three bills introduced this week would dramatically slash federal agency funds for conferences and off-site meetings and make it easier for Congress, watchdogs and the general public to track federal spending.

The measures came as four congressional committees held hearings this week on a watchdog investigation that unearthed more than $820,000 in spending on a Las Vegas conference hosted by the General Services Administration for a few hundred employees. The GSA inspector general said he is investigating similar allegations of misspending and has referred elements of the Las Vegas conference case to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution.

An amendment set for consideration as part of a massive bill reforming the U.S. Postal Service would require agencies to justify the cost and locations of any off-site meetings and to provide quarterly reports detailing the number of federal employees and other guests invited to the conference.

The Conference Accountability Amendment, introduced Thursday by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), would cap agency spending on a single conference at $500,000 unless the agency is a primary sponsor.

“This transparency will allow taxpayers, the media and Congress to see who is traveling where and how often to ensure greater and more timely accountability,” Coburn’s office said in a statement.

The agency would have to post a quarterly conference report on its Web site, including an explanation of how the meetings helped advance the agency’s mission; the total cost of attendance and other costs; the primary sponsors of the conference; its location and why the site was chosen; the number of people invited and their job titles; who paid for people to attend; and all meeting minutes, presentations and recordings.

Outside companies, nonprofits and other foundations would be permitted to provide financial support for agency conferences, but agencies would have to certify that there is no direct conflict of interest in receiving such funding.

Finally, no more than 50 employees from any agency would be permitted to travel to an international conference, according to Coburn’s proposal.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) introduced a proposal to cap agency conference spending at $200,000 each, unless the top agency boss approves a higher cost. McCaskill’s measure also would requires annual conference spending reports and would bar any agency employees under investigation by the inspector general from receiving a year-end bonus. That provision is in response to reports that GSA official Jeffrey E. Neely, who organized the Las Vegas conference, received a year-end performance bonus even though top agency officials knew he was under investigation.

In the House, lawmakers are set to vote next week on the DATA Act, a proposal to establish an independent board that would track all federal spending on one Web site. It also would require agencies to report data in a standardized format. The bill, cosponsored by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), has existed for years, but now is expected to earn more support because Issa and Warner have argued that it could help prevent GSA-like scandals in the future.

What do you think of the proposals? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

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By  |  11:40 AM ET, 04/20/2012

 
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