Senators barrage GSA with new questions on conference scandal

The conference in question was held at the M Resort and Casino in Las Vegas. The conference in question was held at the M Resort and Casino in Las Vegas. Flickr user Exothermic

Leaders of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Monday asked the acting chief of the scandal-tarnished General Services Administration to review the agency’s conference spending and travel, and posed 41 detailed, multipart questions on lavish spending on the ill-fated training conference held in Las Vegas in October 2010.

In a letter to acting Administrator Dan Tangherlini and GSA Inspector General Brian Miller, Chairman Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and ranking member Susan Collins, R-Maine, sought clarification on GSA’s overall financial management, its leaders’ control over its 10 administrative regions, and its spending policies on conferences and contracting.

“The waste, excessive spending and possible fraud uncovered as a result of this investigation and continuing investigations cause us great concern,” they wrote. “It is never appropriate for an agency to skirt acquisition rules and policies and waste taxpayer dollars in the process. These issues are even more troubling given GSA’s unique and lead role in contracting and management of travel and conference planning.”

The senators recommended that GSA’s chief financial officer review recent conferences for possible waste as well a sampling of per diem expenses.

The 41 questions, presented with a deadline of May 31, addressed the scope of GSA’s current “top-to-bottom review.” They asked what changes GSA has made since the overspending was made public in early April and posed various general questions about lines of reporting within GSA when it comes to approval for travel and conferences. In addition, the senators asked for a review of disciplinary actions that have been taken against employees involved in planning the Las Vegas conference.

The letter also requested information on the steps GSA has taken to comply with President Obama’s November 2011 executive order promoting efficient spending. “We often hear that GSA considers itself different from other agencies because, although part of its budget is appropriated, much of its operating budget comes from fees other federal agencies pay to GSA out of their own appropriated accounts in exchange for services GSA provides,” the senators wrote. “GSA’s employees, therefore, may be less conscious of budget constraints than agencies that rely on appropriations. What will you do to instill in the mind-set of GSA employees that they are first and foremost the stewards of taxpayer dollars?”

Asked for a response, GSA Deputy Press Secretary Adam Elkington said in an email to Government Executive that the 2010 conference was an anomaly. “We were appalled by the missteps highlighted in the IG's report, have taken disciplinary action against those responsible, accepted all of the IG’s recommendations and are conducting a top-down review of our agency’s operations,” he said. “We welcome responsible oversight and look forward to working with the committee on this matter. Our agency remains committed to eliminating excessive federal spending and promoting government efficiency.”

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