The head of the General Services Administration turned a one-day speech at a conference in Amsterdam into a 12-day grand tour of Europe for himself and five staff members, at taxpayers' expense.
GSA Administrator Richard G. Austin and his entourage spent more than $22,000 on the trip in late September. Among the travelers was a bodyguard who just happens to be the son of the Capitol Hill staff director for the House subcommittee that sets the GSA budget.
The GSA is the federal government's landlord and supply store -- managing office buildings and doling out pencils. Apparently Austin thought he could learn something from touring castles in Dublin and meeting the queen's paper supplier in London.
In a memo to the White House in July to explain the need for the trip, Austin said he wanted to "foster improved relations . . . and exchange information . . . personally view GSA operations and discuss . . . views on how well we are providing service."
Austin's report of the trip strains to make it sound like business. He lectured the International Symposium on Office Accommodation in Amsterdam on the topic, "Office Accommodation Policy of the American Government."
The delegation toured a palace in the Netherlands, the Dutch Parliament, a museum in Amsterdam, Dublin Castle and a national park in Ireland, and U.S. military bases in England and Germany. In London they stayed in a four-star hotel where the rooms go for $200-plus a night.
In London, Austin visited Her Majesty's Stationery Office. Why? Because, according to his report, the office director had visited the United States and Austin wanted to find out if "there were any outstanding issues for GSA." There weren't, the report says.
A GSA spokesman told us that each GSA administrator makes a similar trip to review the troops, but sources in the agency told our associate Dean Boyd the trip was "a sad waste of money."
If the trip alone was not enough to stir grumblings within GSA, the selection of James Gunnels as a security guard for the entourage did the trick. He is the son of Aubrey A. "Tex" Gunnels, staff director of the House Appropriations subcommittee on Treasury, Postal Service and general government.
James Gunnels is a criminal investigator with the Federal Protective Service stationed in Fort Worth. The service is within the GSA and its job is to provide security for federal buildings. There are about 200 Federal Protective Service agents in Washington whom Austin could have taken, but a GSA spokesman told us James Gunnels was chosen "because he's one of the best."
We asked Tex Gunnels if his powerful subcommittee position could have had anything to do with the choice of his son for the European trip. "I don't see how the hell it could," Gunnels told us, adding that his son was "ordered to go."
Exactly what the younger Gunnels did on the trip is not clear. Federal Protective Services officers cannot carry guns overseas, but the GSA said it needed a security man to plan the trip because of overseas travel warnings posted by the State Department after Iraq invaded Kuwait.