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Federal Eye
Posted at 01:09 PM ET, 08/01/2012

GSA IG looking into 77 conferences held between October 2010 and April 2012

At least 77 General Services Administration employee conferences that totaled more than $6.7 million in costs are under review by the agency’s inspector general, the watchdog said at a hearing before a House panel Wednesday.

The conferences, which cost at least $10,000 each and were attended by 25 employees or more, were held between October 2010, when the agency held an $823,000 employee conference in Las Vegas, and April 2012, when that conference became public.

The conferences were the focus of a hearing before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. GSA acts as the realtor and purchasing officer of the federal government.

The conferences ranged from a a five-day regional marketing managers meeting that cost $10,920, to the 2011 GSA Training Conference and Expo that cost $1.2 million.

According to GSA preliminary findings obtained by The Washington Post, the Federal Acquisition Service held 30 conferences costing more than $3.5 million, the Public Buildings Service held 38 conferences costing more than $2.5 million, the Office of Governmentwide Policy held one conference costing $136,495, the Office of the Chief Information held two conferences costing $177,960, the PBS and FAS held a single joint conference costing $112,131, the Chief People Officer held three conferences costing $60,588; and one for Intergovernmental Relations, costing $15,922.

While the list gave numbers of people who attended, it did not break down the number of employees.

Since the 77 conferences are currently under investigation, the agency’s inspector general could not give examples of which conferences had problems or red flags.

The committee also reviewed a one-day $270,000 awards ceremony in Arlington County for employees of the Federal Acquisition Service.

The one-day conference was held four weeks after the Las Vegas event with a more than $140,000 tab for coordination and logistical costs, $34,000 for the venue, $28,000 on picture frames and $20,579 for drum sticks, Brian Miller, GSA’s inspector general, testified.

“C’mon $140,000 for one day,” said Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who chairs the panel. “There are a lot of us in the wrong business out there.”

The scandal over the Las Vegas conference rocked GSA. Martha Johnson, the agency’s administrator, resigned, and two of her top deputies were fired.

Amid the backlash, acting GSA administrator Daniel Tangherlini canceled 37 conferences and initiated a line-item review of agency conference spending.

GSA has even found its way into the presidential race on Wednesday, with Mitt Romney’s campaign blaming the Obama administration for creating a culture of excess in the government.

“While the country has piled on record levels of debt, millions of taxpayer dollars have been wasted on lavish parties and exclusive retreats,” said Andrea Saul, spokesperson for the Romney campaign. “It’s unacceptable, and Americans deserve better from their government.”

But GSA officials say the agency has acted quickly after details of the Las Vegas conference surfaced.

“The 2010 FAS awards ceremony is another example of what the Acting Administrator has already recognized: a pattern of misjudgment which spans several years and administrations,” said Cynthia Metzler, the chief administrative services officer for GSA. “It must stop, and that’s why Acting Administrator Tangherlini has instituted several stringent new policies on spending to put an end to this waste”

Tangherlini, who had family obligations, did not attend the hearing.

“We’ll continue to look at past conferences and refer any issues we find to the [Office of Inspector General],” said Mafara Hobson, a GSA spokesperson. “This is all part of the ongoing top-to-bottom review initiated by the new head of GSA Dan Tangherlini.”

Hobson noted that the agency has cancelled 37 conferences, centralized the approval process for travel, events and spending, instituted an agency-wide hiring freeze, cut executive bonuses and centralized oversight on regional budgets.

By Timothy R. Smith  |  01:09 PM ET, 08/01/2012

 
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