Federal government doesn't know how much it spends annually on conferences

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Remember the grinning General Services Administration official sipping champagne in a Las Vegas luxury hotel suite bathtub during a lavish taxpayer-provided conference in October 2010?

He got caught, but nearly two years later, nobody seems to know how much federal workers spend on such conferences each year, The Washington Examiner has found.

OMB doesn't require cabinet departments to post costs online until 2013 and all they have to do with the signed justifications is keep them on file at the agency.

The basic problem is there is no central repository for data on annual federal spending on conferences, much less a detailed public accounting of such costs. That information is buried in each department's budget files despite congressional demands and White House orders to cut such spending.

Worse yet, federal agency heads only have to convince themselves that they aren't squandering tax dollars on employee conferences. And even then they don't have to justify their decision to anybody above them, notwithstanding a recent directive from the White House Office of Management and Budget.

After the Las Vegas conference hit the front pages in April, OMB ordered cabinet-level departments to suspend employee events costing $100,000 or more, pending reviews by top agency officials. Spending details on the conferences were to be posted online.

Conferences costing more than $500,000 were banned unless "exceptional circumstances exist" and the department head waived the ban in writing.

But there's a catch: OMB doesn't require Cabinet departments to post costs online until 2013, and all they have to do with the signed justifications is keep them on file at the agency.

So there's still no one place taxpayers can look for the total amount Washington spends in a year hosting conferences.

Even the OMB does not have it, according to a spokeswoman.

The directive forced top managers to review and justify the costs of future conferences, said OMB spokeswoman Moira Mack. But once they've done that, the information stays within each agency.

"It is increasing accountability for these decisions and it is holding senior leadership accountable," Mack said.

Asked who the agency heads are being held accountable to if they do not have to send their reviews to OMB or post them publicly, Mack added: "That is new accountability rising to the senior-most level."

Hardly, according to Leslie Paige of the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste.

"The accountability is not to some senior person in the agency," Paige said. "Accountability is to the taxpayers. And the only way the taxpayers are going to be allowed to hold anyone accountable is to be able to understand where the money is going."

If spending data is being gathered, Paige said, "they are not publicizing it and they are not making it available to taxpayers."

Some in Congress are trying to force some changes. Illinois Republican Rep. Joe Walsh's bill requiring agencies to disclose itemized accountings of conference spending to Congress every three months passed the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform without opposition in June.

A similar provision is included in a Senate bill.

But with the congressional term drawing to a close and the November election looming, the prospects of passage are slim despite bipartisan support.

The Examiner filed Freedom of Information Act requests with major agencies and departments seeking spending documents for recent and planned conferences. So far, none has produced them.

The Examiner also attempted to determine federal conference costs using publicly available federal databases like the Federal Procurement Data System. But such data is incomplete and inconsistent because of variations in how different expenses are reported.

Also, expenses like travel, meals and consultants aren't always coded as conference costs in the government's online public spending disclosure databases.

Mark Flatten is a member of The Washington Examiner special reporting team. Contact him at mflatten@washingtonexaminer.com.

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Iceberg photos by Rita Willaert, Uwe Kils and Wikipedia user Wiska Bodo, used under a Creative Commons license.
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