A report by the General Services Administration's Office of the Inspector General about excessive spending at GSA's 2010 Western Regions Conference near Las Vegas has led to firings, meeting cancellations, Congressional hearings, and White House guidelines on government meetings.
The five-day, 300-attendee training conference, held at the M Resort Spa and Casino in Henderson, Nev., cost the GSA $822,751. This included $136,504 on pre-conference expenses (including eight planning meetings, six of which were at the resort). The OIG cited excessive spending on F&B ($146,527), which exceeded per diems The OIG also pointed to questionable expenses, such as mementos for attendees ($6,325 on commemorative coins), clothing for GSA employees, and tuxedo rentals.
The report also noted several contracting missteps: disclosing a competitor's proposal price to a favored contractor; awarding ato a large business in violation of small-business set-asides; providing free rooms to a contractor's employees even though the contract cost included lodging; and disclosing to the contractor the agency's maximum pay for one day, $75,000, and then paying that amount to the vendor.
In response, the GSA underwent a review of all meetings and travel for the remainder of fiscal year 2012, which ends September 30. Thirty-five meetings valued at $1 million were canceled. It also placed restrictions on attending outside conferences during the review process. The Global Business Travel Association postponed its National Travel Forum (June 4-7), a meeting for government travel planners, because GSA employees now are restricted from attending.
Congress jumped in, holding hearings in April concerning details on the mismanaged conference. Soon thereafter, amendments were introduced in the Senate and the House of Representatives that would cap the amount that can be spent on any government conference at $500,000 and reduce by 20 percent the amount an agency can spend on conferences. The bill would also require government agencies to report on their Web sites every three months all conferences supported or attended, including the cost. The bills haven't received the required approvals to become law.
On May 11, Jeffrey Zients, acting director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, outlined new government restrictions on federal meetings and travel in a memo to the heads of executive departments and agencies. Zients says the government will expand on existing policies to initiate senior-level review of spending for currently planned and future conferences where spending will exceed $100,000, prohibit expenses over $500,000 for a single conference (waivers may be applied for in writing), and begin public reporting on conference spending by federal agencies. A report on conferences that cost the government more than $100,000 must appear on an agency's official Web site and include the location of the conference, total expenses, number of people whose conference expenses were paid by the agency, and other details. The memo calls on government agencies to spend “at least 30 percent less on travel expenses … than in FY 2010. Agencies must maintain this reduced level of spending each year through FY 2016.”
The American Society of Association Executives collected signatures and sent an open letter to Congress asking lawmakers to amend language that would affect conferences. U.S. Travel Association is also lobbying to dissuade lawmakers from making any proposal that would have a negative impact meetings.