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Lawmakers target bonuses, conferences at GSA

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Politics,Congress,Susan Ferrechio,Campaign 2012

The General Services Administration, the agency slammed for spending $823,000 on a lavish Las Vegas conference, handed out $44 million in bonuses to its employees and held as many as 77 other questionable conferences, including a Crystal City event that included a $20,0000 drumming exercise.

Lawmakers and the GSA's inspector general offered details of the bonuses and conferences at a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing, during which Chairman John Mica blasted GSA officials for spending taxpayers' money so lavishly while Americans themselves are struggling in tough economic times.

"I've got people in my district losing their homes and their jobs and struggling to make ends meet, and we've got an agency that is spending money like there is no tomorrow," Mica, R-Fla., said. "It's got to be brought to a halt."

The hearing convened as the news broke that the GSA this week is holding yet another conference, this one at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville, Tenn.

The only GSA employee to testify, Chief Administrative Services Officer Cynthia Metzler, said she approved the two-day event for 48 GSA employees.

Lawmakers pointed out that the Nashville conference includes a night out on the General Jackson Lee steamboat, though Metzler said the steamboat outing was not approved and insisted attendees were prohibited from reserving luxury hotel suites, like the $3,000-per-night presidential suite that was occupied during the conference.

But lawmakers, fed up with lavish spending at the agency, weren't buying it.

"Someone is staying in that damn suite tonight, it's almost guaranteed." Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., said.

GSA Inspector General Brian Miller said he is investigating 77 conferences held by the agency, some that cost as much as $2,200 for each attending employee.

In his testimony, Miller flagged a Crystal City conference in November 2010 that cost $270,000 and included a team-building drum band exercise. The GSA paid $34,000 just to rent the venue, $28,000 for picture frames it gave attendees and $140,464 for an outside vendor to coordinate the entire event, Miller said.

"The vendor cost included $20,579 for drumsticks and $10,000 for management of a presentation called 'Mission Possible Agent X,' " Miller added.

There were few details about which GSA employees received the $44 million in bonuses, though Mica noted one employee received $115,000 in overtime pay above a base salary of $84,000.

Mica and other Republicans are pushing to turn many of GSA's responsibilities over to private industry.

The GSA, with about 12,000 employees, is the chief procurement agency for the federal government, and its mission is supposed to include helping the government operate in a more cost-effective manner.

Mica said he was unable to find private-sector witnesses to testify about assuming some of the GSA's work.

"All of those potential participants are so intimidated by GSA, I'm told, because the GSA has such power," Mica said. "They control the largest rental market in the world."

The GSA is losing the support of even its staunchest Democratic backers -- lawmakers who represent Washington and its suburbs, where so many GSA employees live.

"We just can't take it anymore," said Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md., who represents Prince George's County.

sferrechio@washingtonexaminer.com

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