Watchdog: Agencies pleading for sequestration relief spent millions on employee conferences in 2012

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News,Watchdog,Mark Flatten,Politics Digest

Federal agencies warning of dire disruptions if they are forced to trim budgets due to the sequestration process spent more than $340 million on conferences last year, according to a new tally by a key congressional committee.

But that figure likely underestimates such spending, according to a review of federal data by The Washington Examiner.

The biggest spenders on the 894 high-dollar federal employee conferences in 2012 were the departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs, Justice, and Health and Human Services.

The military spent the most, at $89 million for 295 gatherings. Veterans Affairs had 127 conferences at a cost of $72.7 million; Justice had 107 that cost $58.7 million; and the health agency held 140 at a cost of $56.1 million.

For the most part, the total figure represents only those conferences that cost more than $100,000 each and excluded those with a smaller price tag, according to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Lavish spending on federal conferences has drawn the ire of taxpayers because of a series of internal investigations in recent years documenting excesses such as overpriced catering, free limousine and helicopter rides, and even manicures and pedicures enjoyed by bureaucrats planning and attending the events.

There was the picture of a top General Services Administration official soaking in a Las Vegas hot tub tied to one notorious conference in 2010.

Then last year, the VA's inspector general slammed the agency for wasting as much as $762,000 at a pair of training conferences in Orlando, Fla., in 2011, punctuated by a $50,000 payment to produce a video parody of the movie "Patton."

Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, chairman of the House Oversight Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, said the wasteful conference spending shows there is plenty of waste that can be trimmed in the federal budget without disrupting services.

"The president is deploying scare tactics on sequestration even while federal agencies are wasting money on unnecessary conferences and $47 lunches," Farenthold told The Washington Examiner.

"The fact is agencies are not being fully transparent about conference spending, and the White House budget office is putting more effort into telling our committee that things are OK than trying to change the culture of excess," he said.

Federal agencies were required to post their conference expenses online last month because of a directive issued in May by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

The OMB memo requires agencies to list the date, location, number of attendees and cost of all conferences with a price tag of more than $100,000 on their websites. It also requires them to post the "net conference expenses for the fiscal year."

But The Washington Examiner review found agency disclosures frequently do not include a total figure on conference spending, only the amount spent on events costing more than $100,000.

The difference can be huge. For instance, the U.S. Department of Agriculture lists only two conferences with a total cost of about $363,000 in its disclosure to comply with the OMB memo.

The agency separately is required by law to report all conference expenses and does so on a different part of its website. In the 2011 fiscal year, the most recent available, total USDA conference spending was more than $11 million.

The Washington Examiner review of individual agency disclosures also found the federal government had at least 13 conferences that cost more than $1 million each. The two most costly were for Department of Defense sessions with the National Guard Bureau.

One joint leadership conference in November at Maryland's National Harbor cost $3.7 million. The other was a similar session a week earlier that cost more than $2 million.

The disclosure reports provide only brief descriptions of the purpose of the conferences, with no detailed cost breakdowns.

Mark Flatten is a member of The Washington Examiner's Watchdog investigative reporting team. He can be reached at mflatten@washingtonexaminer.com.

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