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Ag watchdog spent millions on unreported conferences

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Internal watchdogs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture have spent more than $2.1 million since 2009 on training conferences that weren't disclosed to the public or Congress, The Washington Examiner has learned.

Most costly was a $1.2 million gathering of 539 employees of the USDA's Inspector General at the Opryland resort in Nashville in 2009.

Other training conferences for the IG's office include a $642,560 event in Portland in 2010 and regional conferences earlier this year that cost taxpayers $155,800.

None of those conferences are included in an online database the agency has been required to maintain as a result of a congressional mandate passed in response to prior overspending.

The conferences were also left off a list of documents from the agency in response to demands in April from the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

"The IG, whose sole responsibility is to promote transparency in accounting and expose questionable spending, should be held to an even higher standard by disclosing all expenses, whether it's $2 million or $200."
-- Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

That is troubling, said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., whose oversight of USDA led to the requirement that its conference spending be disclosed.

"Unreported recreational spending by the USDA's IG office is a disturbing example of negligence practiced by the agency's own in-house auditor," Coburn told The Examiner.

"The IG, whose sole responsibility is to promote transparency in accounting and expose questionable spending, should be held to an even higher standard by disclosing all expenses, whether it's $2 million or $200," he said.

There are presently 78 IGs, all of whom are intended to be independent watchdogs looking for waste, fraud, abuse and inefficiency. They are presidential appointees but report to Congress.

The posts were created during the Carter administration in response to widespread media exposure of waste, fraud and corruption at the General Services Administration (GSA), the Department of Defense and other federal agencies.

Lavish conference spending at three other agencies has been exposed by recent IG investigations. Most notorious are the 2010 GSA conference defined by a photo of a top agency official soaking in a Las Vegas hotel hot tub; and Department of Veterans Affairs gatherings in Orlando punctuated by a $50,000 video parody of the movie "Patton."

The USDA's IG has not documented such abuses in recent agency conferences.

The Examiner discovered the unreported Opryland conference as a result of an unexplained $464,000 payment for an IG's conference in Nashville that was listed on USASpending.gov, which tracks most federal spending.

It was only after the newspaper sought additional documentation about the conference that the agency disclosed the full payment and other IG training sessions.

Officials in the IG's office refused to be interviewed about the conferences. Paul Feeney, the USDA IG's deputy counsel, said in a written statement to the newspaper that the conferences do not have to be disclosed under the definition of a conference in the law passed as part of the 2008 farm bill.

That law allows non-disclosure of "any training that is continuing education." The IG conferences fall in that category, Feeney wrote.

But Feeney's statement doesn't explain why the conferences were not included in the USDA IG's response to an April 2012 letter from Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who chairs the oversight panel.

The Examiner obtained the agency's response through a Freedom of Information Act request.

"I am disappointed that USDA OIG apparently withheld data about several conferences from the committee," Issa said. "It is not acceptable for any government entity, let alone an Office of the Inspector General, to withhold information or to shirk reporting requirements put in place by Congress to increase transparency and accountability."

Agriculture department officials spent $56 million on more than 1,100 employee conferences between the 2008 and 2011 fiscal years, according to the department's online database. Only about $264,000 of the reported total was spent on IG events.

The Opryland event cost $2,170 per attendee. A fact sheet provided by Feeney said approximately $463,000 was spent on travel and per-diem reimbursements, and a nearly identical amount went to hotel rooms, meeting space and refreshments.

Trainers and speakers cost about $211,000. No money was spent for entertainment, the statement said.

The Opryland conference was to provide required training for auditors and investigators in the IG's office. Courses for auditors included training on contract fraud and how to track laundered money.

Investigators also were trained on conducting dog-fighting investigations and building asset-forfeiture cases, which allow the government to seize cash and other property tied to criminal activity.

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

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