The General Services Administration held a one-day event at a cost topping a quarter of a million dollars less than a month after spending more than $823,000 at a Las Vegas conference that triggered a shake-up of the agency.
The GSA’s inspector general is investigating a $269,000 awards ceremony that featured a guitarist, violinist and $21,000 in drumsticks given to participants, according to a letter yesterday from Inspector General Brian Miller to Senator Claire McCaskill, chairman of a Senate subcommittee on contracting oversight. The event in November 2010 took place in Arlington, Virginia, about a 12-minute drive from the GSA’s offices in Washington.
U.S. lawmakers have been scrutinizing the agency since an April 2 report by the inspector general exposed lavish spending at a gathering at the M Resort Spa Casino in Henderson, Nevada, near Las Vegas. GSA Administrator Martha Johnson resigned amid the scandal and the inspector general has referred the matter to the Department of Justice.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that uncovering these past abuses of taxpayer dollars means a new era of accountability and transparency at an agency that has sorely lacked both,” McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, said in an e-mailed statement. “There’s a new sheriff at GSA, and it’s good to see that he’s turning over every rock to find wrongdoing and correct the abuses of the past.”
Dan Tangherlini, who replaced Johnson as GSA acting administrator in April, brought the incident to the inspector general’s attention, according to Miller’s letter. Miller wrote that his office has “opened an administrative investigation.”
“Under the new GSA leadership, this event and type of spending is not tolerated,” Betsaida Alcantara, GSA’s communications director, said in an e-mailed statement.
The agency has been holding the awards ceremonies since 2002, Alcantara said.
The GSA’s awards ceremony in 2010 had a “whole host of questionable charges,” Representative John Mica, a Florida Republican who heads the House transportation committee, which in part oversees GSA, said at a press conference yesterday.
Mica said his committee is also investigating the event at the Crystal Gateway Marriott. In addition to the drumsticks, it included $21,000 in catering charges and $28,000 for 4,000 “time temperature picture frames,” according to Miller’s letter.
The committee plans to hold a hearing on the Virginia event, possibly within the month, said Justin Harclerode, a spokesman for Mica’s committee.
The transportation committee had been working in harmony with Tangherlini until this week, Mica said. He said the acting administrator was “subverting” the committee’s process with regard to approving leases.
Mica said he was looking at potential legislation to “take GSA out of the property management business, period.”
The GSA manages property and purchases goods and services for other government agencies. Alcantara didn’t respond specifically to Mica’s comment on leases.
Taxpayers have funded at least $27.8 million in GSA conferences since 2005, almost a third of it spent in the popular vacation spots of Las Vegas, New Orleans and Orlando, Florida.
Tripled Conference Costs
The agency almost tripled its expenditures for such events from 2005 to 2010, according to a June 13 Bloomberg story based on data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The GSA has paid for more than 200 overnight gatherings attended by at least 50 of the agency’s employees since 2005.
The agency spent $840,616 on the Las Vegas event, which featured a clown and a mind reader, according to the records, about $17,000 more than the inspector general previously reported.
Tangherlini told lawmakers in April that he had canceled 35 GSA conferences in response to the inspector general report, saving taxpayers $995,686. On April 15, he issued a memorandum stating that “all travel for internal GSA meetings, training, conferences, seminars, leadership or management events” would be suspended until the end of the fiscal year, with some exceptions.
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