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Pentagon says it spent $208 million on conferences

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News,Mark Flatten,Watchdog Blog

Department of Defense (DOD) officials have spent more than $200 million since 2007 hosting conferences on topics ranging from protecting combat forces to breast cancer research.

Officials racked up about $208 million in costs related to almost 3,700 conferences held at locales ranging from the exotic to military base classrooms around the world, according to a database Pentagon officials posted Wednesday. (See below).

The database posting followed requests for the information from a House committee and from this newspaper.

A four-day "Era of Hope" symposium sponsored by DOD's Breast Cancer Research Program in August 2011at the Orlando Marriott World Center in Florida was the costliest conference with a total of more than $2.5 million.

On a per-person basis, the most expensive event was a 2007 Army "land forces symposium" in Pakistan that cost $740,000, or $12,333 for each of the 60 U.S. military personnel attending.

Among conferences convened domestically, the costliest on a per-person basis was a 2007 workshop in Southbridge, Mass., for investigators with DOD's anti-discrimination office. That cost about $782,000, or $7,591 each for 103 attendees.

The most expensive conference in 2011 on a per-person basis was a "Marine Leaders of the America's" conference in Peru, which cost about $8,140 for each of the 50 DOD attendees.

The database lists the title, dates, location, total cost and number of attendees for each conference through 2011. It does not provide itemized billing records for expenses like meals, hotel rooms or entertainment; or detailed descriptions about the conferences.

The military compiled the database in response to an April 10 letter from the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to all federal agencies seeking detailed breakdowns of their conference costs.

That panel's chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., sent the letters a week after a scathing report was issued by the General Services Administration (GSA) Inspector-General concerning extravagant and potentially illegal spending at a 2010 conference at a Las Vegas casino.

The GSA conference cost about $840,000, or $3,002 per person. DOD had 17 conferences with a higher per-person cost, five of which were held outside the U.S during the period from January 2007 through December 2011.

"The American people have an expectation that the federal government is not using their tax dollars to pay for lavish conferences," Issa said in his letter to cabinet secretaries and other top agency administrators.

Issa asked that the documents be delivered to the committee by April 23.

A committee spokesperson on Friday did not know how many agencies have responded.

The Washington Examiner sought the conference documents and data from DOD and other agencies through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests filed earlier this month.

So far, only a few of the other agencies have provided the requested documents to the Examiner. None has produced the detailed spending records or reviews of future conferences that were ordered in May by the White House Office of Management and Budget following the GSA conference revelations.

The breast cancer conference last year in Orlando was an opportunity for scientists, cancer survivors and activists to discuss new research and educational opportunities, said Gail Whitehead.

Whitehead is a spokesman for the DOD's Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program (CDMRP), which sponsored the event. The program was created within DOD about two decades ago to fund research of certain diseases as directed by Congress, she said.

The Era of Hope conference is held every two to three years to allow collaboration among the various interests that receive grants or would benefit from the research, she said.

"This is an opportunity for the survivors to look the researchers in the face and say 'what did you do for me,'" Whitehead said.

Mark Flatten is a member of The Washington Examiner's special reporting team.

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