Sunday, April 8, 2012

GSA Las Vegas Scandal, Spending Run Amuck

For those of us who rile to the spending and waste of big government, this target is to big to miss. Martha Johnson the chief of the General Services Administration resigned, two of her top deputies were fired, and four managers were placed on leave Monday amid reports of lavish spending at a conference off the Las Vegas Strip. The four-day conference in October 2010 featured a clown, a mind reader, and a $31,208 reception. In her resignation letter she acknowledged a “significant misstep” at the agency that manages real estate for the federal government. “Taxpayer dollars were squandered,” she wrote.

The leadership collapse came hours before the GSA Inspector General released a scathing report on the $823,000 training conference, held for 300 West Coast employees at the opulent M Resort and Casino in Henderson, Nev., just south of Las Vegas. From $130,000 in travel expenses for six scouting trips to a $2,000 party in Peck’s loft suite, event planners violated federal limits on conference spending. The GSA cut corners on the purchasing rules they demand of other federal agencies. They hid costs and made secret deals with the hotel.  

At the start of her tenure in February 2010 Martha Johnson called ethics “a big issue for me,” Yet we find the GSA even used stimulus money to pay for part of the conference, and to celebrate their use of stimulus money they hired clowns and a mind reader for entertainment. They must of felt that they were entitled to splurge because of the sacrifices they make as public servants. According to the report, one employee — just one! — argued that a team-building exercise devoted to charity should have been done on private time, not work time. The criticism was ignored, all this happened as the American economy was cratering and unemployment was soaring.                   

It is not surprising that this episode is an embarrassment for the Obama administration, it comes at a time when the role, size, and efficiency of government has become a major issue in the presidential campaign. How much government should spend, and on what, will be at the heart of the election-year battles between Democrats and Republicans. The White House after being criticized for huge budget deficits and making a mild effort to lead a campaign against government waste, was were alerted in March to the year-long investigation and has moved quickly to get in front of the scandal. Chief of Staff Jacob J. Lew briefed President Obama before last week’s trip to South Korea and said Obama “was outraged by the excessive spending, questionable dealings with contractors, and disregard for taxpayer dollars.”        

The taxpayers should also be outraged, outraged by the casualness with which the 300 GSA employees took their fellow citizens to the cleaners. GSA bosses knew and approved, with one saying the conference should be “over the top.” It certainly was. They spent months planning, with hardly a peep of dissent. The workers traveled, ate, slept and had cocktail receptions where they paid $4 for each shrimp. They tipped 22 percent and gave themselves awards and mementos. Some took family members. It was essentially a week’s vacation that they called "work" at a Las Vegas resort.      

Their conference occurred despite President Obama’s ridiculing of financial institutions for wasting federal bailout money. “You can’t go take a trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayers’ dime,” he said in February 2009. This was the same month the GSA began soliciting bids for its trip to Vegas on the taxpayers’ dime. Apparently the GSA didn’t take the president seriously, but why should they? Obama traveled to Vegas to campaign for Harry Reid in Oct.2010 and has appeared to have cut back little on spending since. 

The conference must have been a real challenge to plan, according to the report, five employees conducted a “scouting trip” to nine hotels as far back as March 2009 — 19 months before the gathering. Within days, 15 workers returned to scout out two of the hotels, including the Ritz-Carlton and the M Resort. After the M Resort was selected seven more employees went back for a “planning meeting.” A second “planning meeting” there drew 11 employees. A third drew 16. Later nine employees attended a “planning meeting” at a Denver hotel. Then it was back to Vegas in June, where 21 employees had another “planning meeting.”

In August, 31 GSA employees thought it was necessary to go to the M Resort for a “dry run” of the conference. All the planning alone cost American taxpayers $136,000. You can find the 23-page report available online, written in the dry language of the government and bureaucracy. All this causes me to wonder how much it cost the government to do its "year long investigation", collect all the information, and to produce this report, I suspect the sum would be as shocking as the amount originally spent on the conference. Now we can look forward to costly Congressional hearing, when it comes to government spending, it never ends.

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