Fallout continues from the U.S. General Services Administration’s Western Regions Conference that made national headlines for its spending excesses, contracting missteps, and ethics violations. New details about the conference emerged last week during three days of congressional hearings. And in reaction to the scandal, nearly $1 million worth of GSA meetings have been canceled, the GSA’s employee reward program has been eliminated, and other government meetings could be affected.
At separate Senate and House of Representatives committee hearings on April 16, 17, and 18, lawmakers grilled acting GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini and GSA Inspector General Brian Miller. “What is so outrageous about this is how these bad apples, very bad apples, perhaps criminal apples, have sullied the reputation of very good people,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., at the Senate hearing on April 18, according to CNN.
The $823,000, five-day conference was the subject of a report by the Office of the Inspector General. As a result of its findings, GSA Administrator Martha Johnson has resigned, two senior GSA officials have been fired, and 10 GSA employees, including event planners, are on administrative leave. One of them, Jeff Neely, a regional commissioner who oversaw the conference, refused to answers questions at the House Oversight Committee hearings, citing his Fifth Amendment rights.
Among the new details that emerged at the hearings was the practice of holding joke awards ceremonies in order to get around rules against supplying food at government work conferences. (Food can be served at award events.) One of the awards had a mock red-carpet ceremony, according to the CNN report. Martha Johnson, who resigned over the scandal, said the Western Regions Conference had become a “raucous, extravagant, arrogant, self-congratulatory event that ultimately belittled federal workers,” according to CNN.
Speaking before the House subcommittee on April 16, acting GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini said the “shocking violations run counter to every goal of this administration.” He promised to take “strong action” and improve internal controls and oversight. He has already canceled the 2012 Western Regions Conference and 34 other 2012 GSA conferences that primarily involve internal staff, and put all other conferences under review. The 35 canceled conferences are valued at $995,686.
GSA has also consolidated conference oversight in the new Office of Administrative Services, which will handle all contracting, budgeting, and procurement; oversee conference planning staff; develop a mandatory training program for all employees related to conference planning and attendance; review all travel related to conference planning; and approve all awards ceremonies. Previously, the various regions handled conference planning.
Further fallout from the scandal has included elimination of the GSA’s “Hats Off” employee rewards program, which came under fire from lawmakers for offering gifts like iPods, digital cameras, and GPS devices. Tangherlini called it a “gross misuse of taxpayer funds.”
In addition, the acting GSA Administrator is demanding reimbursement from Neely and the two fired employees, Robert Shepard and Bob Peck, for use of taxpayers’ funds for private, in-room receptions at the Western Regions Conference.
The GSA scandal seems to be taking on a life of its own as some lawmakers focus on government meetings generally, rather than the unethical behavior related to the Western Regions Conference. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., asked the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to investigate all government conferences held in Las Vegas, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Sen. Ron Johnson,R-Wis., is backing a bill that would require reporting to the Inspector General for any government meeting that costs over $20,000. And Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, wants to introduce a bill that would ban lavish GSA conferences.
Also, the House Oversight Committee is in the process of reviewing travel records of 23 federal agencies dating back to 2005, according to the U.S. Travel Association, which could lead to further allegations of excessive government spending on travel.
U.S. Travel is speaking out against those arguing to investigate a specific destination. “Any member of Congress who thinks this issue is about a particular destination is missing the forest for the trees,” said Roger Dow, president and CEO of USTA. “Any time, or in any place, that federal officials spend taxpayer dollars irresponsibly, it is an affront to the American people and the hardworking men and women of the travel industry,” says Dow. “Congress should hold accountable those individuals who choose to flout the federal travel rules and regulations, and strengthen oversight so those rules are followed in every part of the United States.
“Responsible and cost-effective government travel is a must, no matter where it occurs. Excessive government spending is wrong, no matter where it occurs. Congress should consider nothing else beyond these two principles when dealing with this issue—or they risk ostracizing one group of hardworking Americans in favor of another.”
U.S. Travel is working closely with lawmakers who are considering legislation and additional regulations on federal travel to ensure an appropriate and measured response, Dow says.