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GSA scandal prompts limits on federal conferences

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The party may soon be over for federal employees who enjoy the perks of lavish trips and extravagant conferences at taxpayer expense.

Reacting to the unfolding scandal surrounding an $823,000 General Services Administration conference in Las Vegas, the Senate on Tuesday easily approved a measure that would curb spending on travel and conferences by government agencies and for the first time require public disclosure of those costs.

The crackdown follows the nearly universal denunciation on Capitol Hill of a GSA administrator's extensive travel and spending. Jeff Neely, a regional GSA commissioner, is now under a Justice Department investigation for spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on trips to Hawaii, Guam and Saipan and organizing the 2010 Las Vegas event for 300 GSA employees that included $7,000 sushi, a $3,200 mind reader and $6,325 for commemorative coins in velvet boxes.

"We have all seen what has occurred with the GSA conference," said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who proposed the new restrictions. "This is all about transparency and creating a system where we are actually getting to see what is spent on the conferences."

The new restrictions, overwhelmingly approved as an amendment to a Postal Service reform bill, would cut agency spending on conferences to 80 percent of the previous year's spending level and cap at $500,000 the amount that could be spent on any single event. It also would restrict to 50 the number of federal employees who could travel to the same international conference.

Coburn's proposal requires agencies to report quarterly the cost and justification of every conference they sponsor. The federal government spends $15 billion a year on travel, but there is little information available about how much it spends on conferences.

"Unfortunately, the excessive and outrageous spending by the GSA has brought the whole area of spending on conferences under the klieg lights, and I've reached the conclusion that we are spending too much," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.

Coburn has investigated federal spending on conferences before. A previous probe revealed that the Department of Justice had spent $312 million on conferences over seven years. Another showed the government spent $500,000 in 2008 to send 116 federal employees to an HIV/AIDS conference in Mexico City that was available for viewing online.

"The attending employees might see the 'Sex Workers Mini Film Festival,' attend a workshop on the 'Sexy Life' after HIV infection, or swing by a skills-building workshop entitled 'Good Catholics Use Condoms' -- all just some of the events scheduled for the AIDS conference," Coburn reported at the time.

The GSA spending, however, virtually ensured lawmakers, Republican and Democrat alike, would approve restrictions on such spending. Congressional hearings last week in the Republican-controlled House and Democrat-controlled Senate revealed Neely was traveling lavishly, often with his wife or family in tow, on the government dime.

"It's outrageous," said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., who represents many federal employees. "The public expects us to do something about this. This is legislation that is pretty timely and pretty important. It's a good idea to limit these kinds of conferences. These are public agencies. The GSA doesn't have clients, it has taxpayers. So we need to be responsible to the taxpayers."

sferrechio@washingtonexaminer.com

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