GSA spent more than $270,000 to entertain employees who got performance awards

July 19, 2012

Four weeks after an $823,000 spending spree at a Las Vegas hotel, the General Services Administration spent more than $270,000 on a one-day, taxpayer-funded ceremony to reward good performers that featured a drum-band exercise and more than $50,000 in gifts and awards.

The Federal Acquisition Service entertained about 1,000 employees at two Arlington County hotels, with an additional 2,600 participating by webcast, officials said. Forty-nine attendees were flown in from offices around the country.

The revelations Thursday from GSA Inspector General Brian Miller come three months after his scathing report on a lavish, four-day training conference in 2010 for employees in the agency’s western regions.

That event, featuring a mind reader, after-hours receptions in loft suites and a bicycle-building exercise, prompted congressional hearings and new leadership at the agency that manages federal real estate and oversees most government purchasing.

“These events indicate an already recognized pattern of misjudgment which spans several years and administrations,” GSA spokeswoman Betsaida Alcantara said in a statement.

Alcantara said the agency’s new leadership “is leaving no stone unturned” in investigating misuse of taxpayer dollars. “When we find serious issues, we refer them to the inspector general.” She said the awards ceremony, a yearly event since 2002, has been canceled. It was unclear whether Miller is investigating the cost of the previous events.

The latest report of questionable spending came two days after acting GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini announced a hiring freeze for the rest of the fiscal year and canceled most bonuses for executives.

More than half of the money for the event that came to light Thursday— $140,464 — went to a public relations, marketing and advertising firm for “coordination and logistical management,” according to Miller’s preliminary review, which was sent to congressional investigators.

The expenses included $34,073.38 for space at the Crystal Gateway Marriott in Arlington and $20,578.24 for 4,000 drumsticks for the team-building event. Travel costs for the out-of-town officials came to $49,734.

The new round of excess was uncovered this month by Tangherlini, whom President Obama appointed in April to replace Martha Johnson. Johnson was forced to resign, two of her top deputies were fired and numerous other officials were placed on leave, including the organizer of the Western Regions conference, Jeffrey Neely, who left the agency this spring.

Tangherlini, who is conducting an extensive review of GSA’s day-to-day operations, became alarmed by the cost of the Nov. 17, 2010, event and referred it to Miller for review.

The Arlington celebration pulled out all the stops: a $7,697.22 “commissioners reception” for high-ranking officials; 4,000 picture frames showing time and temperature at a cost of $28,364,45 to taxpayers; five passenger buses, two minibuses and a van for $5,390. And a whopping $20,578. 24 paid for 4,000 drumsticks for a team-building exercise.

The commissioners reception for top acquisition service officials, held at the Key Bridge Marriott in Arlington, featured hors d’oeuvres, miniature pastries and entertainment by a violinist and guitarist.

The hotel’s senior event manager, Jennifer Donald, said she booked the event but declined to discuss details because clients are confidential.

Tangherlini has also slashed travel and conference budgets. Thirty-six planned conferences for this fiscal year were canceled, officials said.

The latest misspending drew quick bipartisan rebukes on Capitol Hill, where two lawmakers held a news conference to denounce the event.

“We’ve known that there is a culture of waste, fraud and abuse within the many layers of GSA,” Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of a House committee that oversees GSA, said in a statement. “This proves that this is a systemic problem that is rooted deeply within this organization.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who last year investigated a costly contract GSA signed with a PR firm, said of Tangherlini: “There’s a new sheriff at GSA, and it’s good to see that he’s turning over every rock to find wrongdoing and correct the abuses of the past.”

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