A Guide for Squandering Taxpayer Dollars

I’m not sure that the senior-level party planners housed in federal, state and local government bureaucracies need any advice about how to squander taxpayer dollars. But if they do, the General Services Administration provides a pretty good model.

And I guess the folks who used to be in charge of the GSA, which was established in 1949 in part to “develop government-wide cost-minimizing policies,” didn’t get the memo that most folks living in Real World USA [that’s anywhere Outside the Beltway] have some big reservations these days about government spending and waste.

So here comes the classic spending boondoggle, as reported in WaPo, “GSA chief resigns amid reports of excessive spending“:

The chief of the General Services Administration resigned, two of her top deputies were fired and four managers were placed on leave Monday amid reports of lavish spending at a conference off the Las Vegas Strip that featured a clown, a mind reader and a $31,208 reception.

Administrator Martha N. Johnson, in her resignation letter, acknowledged a “significant misstep” at the agency that manages real estate for the federal government. “Taxpayer dollars were squandered,” she wrote. At the start of her tenure in February 2010 she called ethics “a big issue for me.” [Note to self: LOL]

Public Buildings Service chief Robert A. Peck, a fixture in the Washington area real estate community on his second stint running the department, was forced out, along with Johnson’s top adviser, Stephen Leeds. Four GSA managers who organized the four-day conference in October 2010 have been placed on adminstrative leave, officials said.

The leadership collapse came hours before GSA Inspector General Brian D. Miller released a scathing report on the $823,000 training conference, held for 300 West Coast employees at the M Resort and Casino, an opulent hotel in Henderson, Nev., just south of Las Vegas. From $130,000 in travel expenses for six scouting trips to a $2,000 party in Peck’s loft suite, event planners violated federal limits on conference spending.

The episode is an embarrassment for the Obama administration at a time when the role and size of government have taken center stage in the presidential campaign. How much government should spend, and on what, will be at the heart of the election-year battles between Democrats and Republicans.

Admittedly, these type of spending debacles take place all the time in business, where the Captains of Industry run the organization for their own self interest. But in that environment, it’s somewhat difficult to quibble with some of the spending for trips, parties, conferences and so on for high-achieving sales people and others who actually contribute to the success of the organization. And if shareholders don’t like it, get rid of management. [Note to self: LOL]

Strikes me as being a different ballgame for government departments and agencies and for government employees, who don’t generate any revenue except what they get from taxpayers. [If you haven’t filed your tax return yet, think about it as you work toward the mid-April deadline.]

Anyway, back to the GSA via WaPo:

The GSA, with 12,600 employees in 11 regional offices and the Washington headquarters, also handles much of the government’s procurement and holds a “Western Regions” conference every other year for employees assigned to West Coast offices. The focus is on training in job skills and “an exchange of ideas between ‘higher-ups,’ ’’ the inspector general said.

“As the agency Congress has entrusted with developing the rules followed by other federal agencies for conferences, GSA has a special responsibility to set an example, and that did not occur here,” Miller wrote. In an interview Monday, he credited Susan Brita, a deputy administrator, for tipping off his staff to the spending.

The agency “followed neither federal procurement laws nor its own policy on conference spending,” giving preference to favored contractors, for example, he wrote.

After the conference, GSA employees created an internal Web site that featured photos and videos of the conference highlights. It was not taken down until last week.

Managers ignored several warnings from employees to tone things down, the inspector general said.

Among the “excessive, wasteful and in some cases impermissable” spending the inspector general documented: $5,600 for three semi-private catered in-room parties and $44 per person daily breakfasts; $75,000 for a “team-building” exercise — the goal was to build a bicycle; $146,000 on catered food and drinks; and $6,325 on commemorative coins in velvet boxes to reward all participants for their work on stimulus projects. The $31,208 “networking” reception featured a $19-per-person artisanal cheese display and $7,000 of sushi. At the conference’s closing-night dinner, employees received “yearbooks” with their pictures, at a cost of $8,130.

Wow. Better that the Cleveland Indians spend $75,000 on “team building.”

That notion of “team building,” by the way, is one of the silliest concepts ever advanced by the legions of human resources administrators and other miscreants who make big bucks in organizations without ever seeming to have to do anything. Guess they couldn’t get government jobs. And if you are unfortunate enough to have to attend a meeting or conference with “team building” on the agenda, pack the big flask filled to overflowing with Jameson. Trust me on this one.

Back to the GSA. Now that the expense accounts have been aired in public, what type of repercussions can we expect for those involved? Again, from WaPo:

GSA spokesman Greg Mecher said the agency “is appalled’’ by the inspector general’s findings and will consider disciplinary action against other employees if it is warranted. He pledged fast changes to accounting procedures and increased oversight over conference planners and contractors. Employees will be required to take mandatory training in conference planning. Travel budgets for several regional offices have been reduced, and future “Western Region” conferences have been canceled.

Wow. “Employees will be required to take mandatory training in conference planning.”

You just can’t make some of this stuff up.


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