More than half of the conference spending reported by the Commerce Department in the first quarter of fiscal 2012 was based on estimated and unsupported costs, according to a new inspector general report.
The IG found that 65 percent or $1.1 million of the total $1.7 million in conference spending reported by Commerce was not based on actual costs for things such as meals and incidental expenses, transportation and lodging costs. This also included budgeted expenses that the department could not provide sufficient documentation for.
Some bureaus said they used estimates because the actual expenses were not available at the end of the reporting quarter, or they had not received invoices, according to the Oct. 17 report.
However, the IG found instances where actual cost data was available at the bureaus but not submitted.
Census Bureau, International Trade Administration, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Patent and Trademark Office reported more than $1.7 million in spending for 24 conferences in the first quarter of fiscal 2012, the report said.
“The department accepted bureau’s conference spending data with only limited validation of the reported data and planning procedures, which resulted in incorrect reporting for select conferences,” the report said.
Two of the five bureaus over-reported some conference costs by a combined total of about $37,000 and under-reported other costs by more than $70,000, the report found. For example, the bureaus under-reported their transporation costs by nearly $28,000.
A 2012 appropriations provision requires the department to submit quarterly reports on conference spending to the IG. When the provision was enacted last year, the department had not fully developed policies or processes for doing the quarterly reports.
Since then, however, the IG noted that Commerce has created written policies for reporting conference spending and has made other drastic changes.
In a response letter to the IG, Commerce’s chief financial officer, Scott Quehl, said the act that requires Commerce to report conference spending does not make the distinction between reporting estimated and actual costs, but Commerce will review the IG’s concerns.
Quehl also said a comprehensive policy with guidance for requesting conference pre-approval, quarterly reporting and other related matters is undergoing final review.
IG recommendations for Commerce include:
- Strengthen operating policy to ensure bureaus accurately report actual conference spending, identify estimated costs and update them when actual costs become available.
- Require bureaus to maintain supporting documentation for costs incurred, planning considerations and decision justifications.
- Acquire assurance from bureaus that all required conferences are included in quarterly reports.
- Develop a process to examine questionable costs and document results.
The Veterans Affairs Department today delivered to Congress dozens of DVDs documenting its controversial 2011 human resources conferences (now being investigated by the agency’s Office of Inspector General for possible wasteful spending).
The vast majority of them are typical HR conference fare: addresses by Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry and VA Chief Human Capital Officer John Sepulveda, and discussions about recruitment challenges, labor-management relations and disability programs. (Which supports the IG’s conclusion that the conference was held for legitimate reasons, despite its concerns about hundreds of thousands of dollars in alleged wasteful spending on promotional items and scouting trips, and possible illegal or improper gifts to conference organizers.)
But the DVDs also included a video, shown the last day of the July conference, that collected some of its sillier moments. That clip shows VA employees singing Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” at the conference’s karaoke night and dancing, and has a short clip of the in-person appearance of the actor who portrayed Gen. George Patton in the highly-criticized $52,000 video.
What do you think — harmless shenanigans no different from any other conference? Or an example of government waste? Watch the video and sound off below.
The $52,000 “Patton” parody video commissioned by the Veterans Affairs Department and released this morning is — let’s be honest — kind of a snooze. The actor sorta sounds like George C. Scott’s Gen. Patton towards the end — I’ll give him that — but doesn’t look like him at all, it’s too long, and what few jokes there are are pretty lame. (And I’m not really sure how one actor, his costume, a big flag, and a smattering of B-roll and interviews with VA employees requires a budget of $52,000.)
It doesn’t have the catchy tune or wit of the General Services Administration’s infamous “When I’m Commissioner” clip (which remains the “Thriller” of conference scandal videos). But one line from the ersatz Ol’ Blood-and-Guts did catch my ear — and make me wonder if the actor’s real inspiration was a certain space opera that took place a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…
Acting General Services Administration head Dan Tangherlini just posted a YouTube video addressing the burgeoning conference spending scandal — and he is not happy. The infamous 2010 Western Regions Conference didn’t just violate travel, acquisition and good conduct rules, he said: It undermined GSA’s entire purpose.
Just as importantly, those responsible violated rules of common sense, the spirit of public service, and the trust that America’s taxpayers have placed in all of us. Among other things, GSA creates and manages the rules and regulations governing travel and conferences. As a result, the actions of those responsible for the Western Regions Conference cut to the heart of what we do and who we are. They undermine both our mission and the trust we have developed with our customers — including the most important customer of all, the American public.
This will “never happen again,” Tangherlini said. He went on to outline some steps that have been taken in response to the revelations, such as an agency-wide review of all conferences and events and the suspension of GSA’s troubled Hats Off awards program, pending a “top-down review.” And in his most stinging rebuke, Tangherlini said:
Serving our customers well is reward enough. It is a signal that our commitment is to our service, our duty and our nation, and not to conferences, awards or parties.
It’s clear that Tangherlini understands just how damaging these revelations have been to GSA — and that he doesn’t want to hear anybody around him say the conference was no big deal. One of his first comments in this damage-control video is, “If you haven’t already, I urge you to read the report. When you do, you’ll see that what took place was completely unacceptable. [...] I speak for the overwhelming majority of GSA staff when I say we are shocked and deeply disappointed by these indefensible actions.”
The General Services Administration’s conference spending scandal shows no signs of quitting. House Republicans have chomped down on it hard as an example of out-of-control government waste, and GSA officials are dropping left and right. The fallout is bound to affect federal employees across the government, and change how agencies think about travel and conferences.
We’d like to hear from you. What’s your take on GSA’s conference spending? Is it a big deal to you, or does it just reflect the status quo in the government? Has your office instituted any changes yet? Are you already getting pressure to rein in travel and conference spending? And what do you think the focus on this issue is doing to the public image of feds?
Last night, the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart weighed in on the General Services Administration’s conference spending scandal and zeroed in on what may be its most appalling angle: The sheer lameness of the crap GSA bought with $822,000 in taxpayer dollars. Said an outraged Stewart:
Canteens, clowns and bicycles? You’re in Vegas! Unless those canteens were filled with cocaine [...], you are a disgrace to corruption everywhere. I think I’m less upset about the waste of money than I am with the waste of opportunity.
[...] Yearbooks! They got yearbooks! The people in government known for efficiency and cost-cutting made sure they had physical evidence of the boondoggle they had in Vegas.
Stewart then shows a mock yearbook photo of former GSA Administrator Martha Johnson and dubbed her “Most likely to resign over an event that betrays an almost comical misunderstanding of the agency’s mission.”
The language, though bleeped, gets pretty salty at times, so be warned.
While most of the scandal around GSA’s lavish 2010 conference in Las Vegas revolves around overpriced mind readers, ridiculously expensive team-building activities and expensive meals, GSA also spent more than $130,000 just to pick the spot where they were going to blow more than $686,000.
So for your reading pleasure, a timeline of all the scouting trips GSA employees took to plan for the conference.
The morning of Monday, October 25, and all of Friday, October 29, were travel days.
GSA published a notice of its planned procurement on February 2, 2009. The subsequent conference planning meetings included the following:
March ’09 Five GSA employees conducted a “scouting trip” to visit nine Las Vegas-area hotels.
March ’09 15 GSA employees returned to visit two of the nine hotels again, staying at the M Resort and the Ritz-Carlton.
August ’09 Seven GSA employees stayed at the M Resort for a planning meeting
November ’09 A second WRC planning meeting, attended by 11 GSA employees, was held at the M Resort following Region 9’s leadership council meeting.
March ’10 16 GSA employees stayed at the M Resort again for a planning meeting.
June ’10 Nine GSA employees attended another planning meeting, this one at a Marriott Hotel in Denver, Colorado.
August ’10 21 GSA employees attended a conference planning meeting at the M Resort.
October ’10 Thirty-one GSA employees traveled to the M Resort for a “dry run” of the conference to be held later that month.
These off-site meetings cost the government over $130,000, including:
- A total of $100,405.37 in employee travel costs.
- Significant spending on catered food and beverages during the various pre-conference trips to the M Resort, totaling over $30,000 for the scouting trip, four pre-planning meetings, and dry run. These charges included $57.72 per head lunches ($44 for lunch plus beverages and a 22% gratuity) and $48.80 breakfasts ($40 plus a 22% gratuity).
- Other expenses, such as audio-visual services and printing costs.