GSA blasted for another over-the-top 2010 conference

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The General Services Administration staged a one-day awards conference at two hotels in Arlington, Va., in November 2010 at which some 200 guests were treated to gifts such as time-and-temperature picture frames and drumsticks, according to GSA inspector general figures House Republicans on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee released Thursday.  The estimated total cost of the conference was $268,732.

“It’s another sad day for taxpayers, another for an out-of-control agency,” Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the panel, said at a hastily called press conference to announce a congressional investigation into the matter. “This makes everyone’s blood boil among members of Congress and the public.”

The new revelations and a clash this week over leases acting GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini signed without congressional approval could mean “we may see a major showdown between Congress and the GSA” over whether the agency should continue to manage federal properties, Mica said in a subsequent interview with Government Executive.

Using drumsticks and an electric guitar as props, Mica and Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., linked the news of the questionable conference, held at the Crystal City Marriott and the Key Bridge Marriott by GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service, to their ongoing effort to pressure the agency to perform better at selling off excess federal properties.

According to the inspector general’s figures, the 2010 event included what Mica called “a whole host of questionable charges.” Among them: $7,697 for a “commissioner’s reception” for 200 that featured a guitarist and violinist, hors d’oeuvres and mini-pastries; a $35,000 awards ceremony; 4,000 drumsticks provided to attendees at a cost of $20,578; two types of picture frames costing about $36,000; a performance by Mission Possible Agent X of JDG Communications, a marketing firm specializing in federal agencies, for $10,010; logistics management charges of $104,484 from the Gallagher and Gallagher public relations company; $41,734 for travel for 49 attendees; and $5,390 for rental of five 55-passenger buses, two mini-buses and a van.

After this spring’s scandal stemming from the October 2010 Western Regions Conference of GSA’s Public Buildings Service, “the question was whether this waste was just regional or governmentwide,” Denham said. “These types of parties and lavish vacations are an agency cultural problem, a blatant abuse of taxpayer dollars, and they must stop.”

Denham called for each government agency to follow President Obama’s executive order clamping down on travel and conference spending, though it was released in November 2011, a year after the Arlington event. And he called Obama to back passage of his legislation reforming the property sale process and for GSA to hold future conferences in empty government buildings and national parks.

Both lawmakers pointed out conference spending involves millions of dollars while the vacant buildings problem involves billions. Public Buildings Subcommittee Staff Director Dan Mathews will conduct the committee’s probe. Mica and Denham are planning more hearings on the GSA’s issues with unloading federal properties, with one scheduled for Miami next month and another for Los Angeles.

In response to Thursday’s announcement, GSA Communications Director Betsaida Alcantara released a statement noting the 2010 event was held regularly since 2002. “Today, under the new GSA leadership, this event and type of spending is not tolerated,” she said. “As of April 15, 2012, all spending for events, including training conferences, leadership events, team building exercises [and] award ceremonies, were suspended. These events indicate an already recognized pattern of misjudgment, which spans several years and administrations. It must stop, and is why acting Administrator Tangherlini has instituted several stringent new policies on spending to put an end to this misuse of taxpayer dollars.”

GSA also noted Tangherlini has consolidated oversight of conference and travel expenses in the new Office of Administrative Services. In addition, he has canceled 36 conferences and directed the new office to “review each and every planned future conference to make sure that they and any related travel is justified." Also this week, he cut executive bonuses and instituted a hiring freeze.

GSA also pointed out that Tangherlini referred the 2010 Arlington, Va., conference to the inspector general.
Correction: The original version of this story inadvertantly described revelations this spring about a General Services Administration conference as a "GAO scandal." The story is not about any Government Accountability Office scandal and the acronym has been removed from the reference.
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