Congressional critics of overspending by the General Services Administration were highly specific during an Aug. 1 hearing when they suggested GSA employees would abuse funds at a conference taking place that same day at the 2,881-room Gaylord Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tenn.
"I understand the presidential suite is occupied today. Is there a GSA employee in the presidential suite?" Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on public buildings, asked GSA Chief Administrative Services Officer Cynthia Metzler.
“I would hope not,” Metzler replied, adding GSA’s contingent to the regularly scheduled conference, which totaled 48 employees, had been briefed in advance on allowable spending.
Denham was joined by colleagues who suggested some government employees might not only use the expensive suite but also participate in a steamboat cruise offered by the Gaylord. "We look forward to looking into that further," he said.
“I think you and I both know there is not going to be good news out of this conference,” Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., told the witness. “Somebody is staying in that damn suite tonight, I would almost guarantee you.”
A day later, a GSA spokesman confirmed that no GSA employees used the suite or took the cruise.
Asked this week whether they had judged GSA too hastily, the lawmakers were unapologetic. A spokesman for Walz said, “we are glad to hear that [the suspicions were wrong] and expect [GSA] to continue watching every penny.”
Denham said in an email: “In light of recent reports revealing 77 lavish conferences and out-of-control spending on bonuses exhibited by this agency in the past 18 months, it’s our job to ask the tough questions and demand accountability for the American taxpayers. Initial inquiries indicated the GSA had rented the facilities in question, and we appreciate the inspector general’s quick assessment of costs associated with the Nashville conference, which found no evidence of excessive spending by GSA’s standards.”
Denham said he would not be satisfied until he sees an end to lavish conferences and real transparency and reform.
“I will continue to work with the committee and with other members of Congress to take money and resources away from GSA so they are not able to repeat their mistakes,” he said, adding he expects the measures will be taken up “before the year’s end.”
WUSA-TV, a Washington CBS affiliate that has been covering the GSA spending scandal, assigned reporters in Nashville to check on the allegations and found that the steamboat cruise that night had been booked by Brother International, a sewing machine company.
Asked for a GSA response on Wednesday, spokesman Dan Cruz stressed that his agency has canceled 37 conferences and the ones that make the cut now, such as the required SmartPay conference in Nashville, are justified. “These conferences are critical for training and for businesses to understand how to work with government,” he said. “These have been attended by thousands of federal, state and local employees, as well as thousands of small and large businesses.”
The conference provides continuous education for managers in the form of more than 200 sessions on such issues as reconciliation and payments systems and detecting questionable transactions. “GSA SmartPay contractor banks,” he added, “are required to provide annual training at the conference at no additional cost to the government.”