Report details 'excessive and wasteful' conference spending at GSA

Event was held at M Resort in Las Vegas Event was held at M Resort in Las Vegas Flickr user Exothermic

In a scathing report on spending for a 2010 General Services Administration conference in Las Vegas, the agency’s inspector general has concluded that “many of the expenditures on this conference were excessive and wasteful, and that in many instances GSA followed neither federal procurement laws nor its own policy on conference spending.”

The report led to the resignation of GSA Administrator Martha Johnson Monday, the firing of two other agency officials and various other administrative actions. Further penalties could be coming.

Before GSA officials settled on the M Resort Spa Casino in Las Vegas as the site for the biennial Public Buildings Service Western Regions Conference in October 2010, they conducted eight different off-site sessions: two “scouting trips,” five planning meetings and one dry run for the event. Expenses for those planning sessions totaled more than $100,000.

The total cost of the conference was $820,000.

A GSA official told agency conference planners to make the event "over the top," the IG reported. Recommendations by regional employees that costs be curtailed were ignored. 

The event included a $75,000 team-building exercise, conducted by an organization called Most Valuable Performers, that involved building 24 bicycles. GSA officials improperly disclosed to the contractor that $75,000 was the most the agency could spend on one day of training, the IG reported.

The report found that GSA spent more than $146,000 on food for the conference, and determined that many of the expenditures were questionable. Meal expenses throughout the event exceeded federal per diem limits, which for Las Vegas were $71 per day in 2010.

On the first evening of the conference, the theme of which was “A Showcase of World-Class Talent,” GSA hosted a “networking reception” that featured, among other items, 1,000 sushi rolls at $7.00 apiece, a $19 per person “American Artisanal Cheese Display,” and $525 in bartender service fees.

Agency officials also hosted semi-private parties in hotel rooms and suites, catered at taxpayer expense. These included an “essentially celebratory party” for senior GSA officials hosted by Public Buildings Service Commissioner Robert Peck in his loft suite at a cost of $1,960. Peck was terminated Monday. Another party in the same suite, held on the closing night of the conference, cost more than $2,700.

GSA also spent more than $6,300 on commemorative coins for conference participants and other agency employees to reward them for their work on Recovery Act projects. Last year, the Obama administration ordered agencies to cease spending on such promotional items.

The agency also spent $1,840 for vests for “regional ambassadors” to wear at the conference, and almost $400 for tuxedo rentals for masters of ceremonies at an awards dinner.

The IG report concluded that several GSA employees may have taken actions in the course of planning the conference that violated regulations against accepting gifts from organizations and people doing business with the agency. In one instance noted in the report, an employee of Location Solvers, a company that worked with GSA to pick a venue for the event, sent an email to the M Resort saying that a GSA official would be staying at the hotel on the night before official travel days for a scouting trip to assess possible locations. Therefore, the email stated, the official “needs a friend of a friend of the owner rate. (wink).”

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