Watchdog: Follow the Money

Examiner Watchdog: DoED spends $1.5 million a year on swanky conference for college aid officials

By |
Photo -
News,Education,Watchdog,Mark Flatten,Conference Spending,Follow the Money,Higher Education

Federal education officials spend more than $1.5 million every year on a gathering of college financial aid administrators held at high-end vacation destinations.

Last year's four-day conference, which opened in late November, was hosted by the U.S. Department of Education at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. The year before that, the event was at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort in Orlando.

What we found
• Hosted the govenment's biggest conference at a casino hotel in 2011, for 7,000 college aid officials, at a cost of $1.5 million.
• Paid a private consulting company $790,000 to plan the conference even though the department has four bureaucrates whose only job is to plan the same conference.
• Education Secretary Arne Duncan was the featured speaker. His topic? Controlling college costs.

The MGM event was the federal government's most expensive conference held at a casino hotel last year, according to the Federal Procurement Data System.

Sole-source contracts were used to select sites for the events, according to internal Education Department documents obtained by The Washington Examiner.

The MGM event cost taxpayers about $1.6 million, according to the agency, including $790,000 paid to an outside consultant to help plan and present the conference.

The keynote speaker was the department's secretary, Arne Duncan. His topic: controlling college costs.

The 2010 event in Orlando cost taxpayers more than $1.8 million, according to the Education Department.

More than $2 million was spent on separate regional versions of the conference in Dallas and Las Vegas in 2008. Since 2009, the agency has combined the two regional conferences into one national event that has consistently cost more than $1.5 million.

The 2012 conference is planned for late November at the Peabody Orlando, an upscale resort near Walt Disney World.

Federal officials use the conference to update college financial aid administrators and advisers on policies covering the estimated $150 billion spent annually by the Education Department on student loans and grants.

Almost 7,000 people attended the MGM event, including about 200 agency employees. College administrators paid their own room, travel and meal costs.

Obama and Bush administration officials concluded that a conference is the most efficient way of training so many administrators, said department spokesman Justin Hamilton, adding that the per-person costs have been dropping since 2009.

"We spend $235 a person to help educate almost 7,000 financial aid professionals from 2,200 schools on how to manage close to $150 billion in taxpayer-financed federal student aid," Hamilton said. "We're very mindful of expenses and have worked to reduce costs."

Federal law does not permit officials to charge registration fees to cover the costs of such conferences.

Hamilton confirmed that sole-source contracts were used in the site selection, but he said officials first identify hotels that can handle such a large group and provide the technical needs of the conference on required dates.

Government travel to top-tier destinations is under increased scrutiny after revelations of lavish spending on the taxpayer dime at a 2010 conference held by the General Services Administration at another Las Vegas resort.

An inspector general's report, released in April and first reported by the Washington Post, detailed opulent private parties, costly catering and excessive pre-planning and travel for a regional meeting of about 300 GSA employees, at a cost of $822,751.

While The Examiner found no evidence of similar excesses at the MGM Grand event, there are several parallels. GSA investigators, for example, questioned why the agency outsourced conference planning instead of using government employees who are also planners.

For the MGM conference, Education Department officials paid ASK Associates Inc. $789,336 for planning and technical support, even though the department's website says its Federal Student Aid office has four full-time workers to plan the annual conference.

The Lawrence, Kan.-based ASK was paid about $2.3 million last fiscal year by federal agencies. Its two biggest clients are the Education Department and the GSA. The firm was not linked to the controversial GSA regional meeting.

Phone calls and emails to ASK Associates Inc. requesting comment for this story were not returned.

mflatten@washingtonexaminer.com

Mark Flatten is a reporter for The Washington Examiner's special reporting team. Contact him at mflatten@washingtonexaminer.com.

View article comments Leave a comment