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Topics: Veterans Affairs

Washington's 'Spring Break' culture seen in conference spending

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Politics,White House,Watchdog,Mark Flatten,Veterans Affairs,OMB,Conference Spending

Freebies, room upgrades, overpriced consultants, costly meals and silly videos have become staples of federal employee conferences gone bad.

Not to mention unnecessary scouting trips and grab-bags full of goodies like embossed notebooks, pedometers and squeeze toys to relieve stress.

Such excesses at the expense of taxpayers are recurring findings in multiple audits and investigations conducted in recent years by different agency inspectors general.

Why such spending excesses are so common may be explained by the fact that record-keeping by federal agencies is so sloppy that it's hard to get a firm figure on how much was spent or wasted.

Typical was a May 31 IG report documenting excesses at an Internal Revenue Service conference in Anaheim, Calif., in August 2010 that cost taxpayers about $4.1 million. That's the one with videos of a "Star Trek" skit and employees dancing. Those videos cost more than $50,000.

The IRS "Star Trek" skit cost about the same as the price paid in 2011 by the Department of Veterans Affairs for a parody of the movie "Patton" that was shown at a pair of training conferences in Orlando. The VA's IG put the tab for that one at $6.1 million.

No one knows the total amount the federal government spends annually on conferences. The White House Office of Management and Budget last year required agencies to post details of all conferences that cost more than $100,000 by January 2013. Those disclosures show more than $305 million was spent in the 2012 fiscal year.

But large conferences are only part of what agencies spend. For instance, the Department of Justice lists about $23 million for six-figure conferences. Actual conference spending, including smaller events, was about $58.7 million, according to agency reports.

The excesses and the federal bureaucracy's opaque record-keeping drive taxpayer advocates like Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., crazy.

"It is unfortunate that taxpayers continually learn their dollars were spent on low-priority conferences for federal bureaucrats," Coburn told the Washington Examiner.

The Oklahoma Republican has long pushed to limit federal conference spending and to expand disclosure of government spending. Coburn and then-Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., were the primary sponsors of the Federal Financial Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 that led to creation of the USASpending.gov website.

"Because the federal government is so big with limited transparency, this 'spring break' mentality continues, even during this time of sequestration," Coburn said. "Congress and agency officials have a duty to stop such egregious spending."

The Justice IG started the latest spate of conference scandals with a report issued in September 2011, which documented $5 meatballs, $8 cups of coffee, and contracts with outside event planners whose fees sometimes accounted for more than half the cost of a conference.

Next was an IG report in April 2012 documenting abuses at the General Services Administration western management conference in Las Vegas in October 2010. Spending for the event exceeded $820,000, according to the GSA's IG.

That one caught the public's attention when the Washington Post published the photo of GSA executive Jeffrey Neely soaking in a taxpayer-financed hotel hot tub, sipping a glass of wine.

Then came the VA, subject of an October 2012 IG report on the Orlando conferences. Aside from the "Patton" parody, the VA paid $16,500 to produce "happy face" videos of conference attendees doing things like dancing and singing karaoke.

Other excesses included $72,000 for snacks and $98,000 for baubles such as water bottles and notebooks. In all, about $762,000 in questionable expenses were racked up at the Orlando conferences, according to the IG.

The Obama administration has issued a series of orders to limit conference spending and increase transparency since the Justice conference scandal broke in 2011. Within days, the OMB issued a directive that agencies review their conference policies. The OMB also ordered high-level approval for planned events.

President Obama followed up two months later with an executive order that all agencies develop plans to reduce conference and travel spending, and increase the use of technology tools such as video conferencing where possible.

In May 2012, the OMB issued a more detailed directive requiring public disclosure, no later than Jan. 31, 2013, of conferences costing more than $100,000. Top-level approval is required for any conference costing more than $100,000.

Those are good steps, said Tom Schatz, president of the nonpartisan watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste. But what seems to be lacking among some federal conference planners is shame.

"It should never have taken this kind of embarrassing, ridiculous spending to be used as an excuse to cut back in the first place," Schatz said. "This never should have happened. It always seems to take some kind of mini-scandal or massive embarrassment for anyone in Washington to cut back on even the most obvious waste."

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