Probe finds more lavish spending from the GSA

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 19, 2012 

— First it was a nearly $1 million conference in Las Vegas, featuring $7,000 worth of sushi, a mind reader and a clown.

Now it turns out that just weeks after that lavish affair two years ago, the federal General Services Administration spent $20,000 on drumsticks – the kind used for hitting drums – and nearly $30,000 for “time temperature picture frames” for an awards ceremony in nearby Virginia, according to its Office of Inspector General.

The ceremony, which appears to have involved two events at separate hotels, cost taxpayers $268,732, according to the initial findings, GSA Inspector General Brian Miller said in a letter Thursday to several members of Congress.

More than half of that money – $140,464 – went to a public relations, marketing and advertising firm for “coordination and logistical management,” Miller wrote.

Besides the 4,000 drumsticks, which were used for a drum band team-building exercise, the expenses included $42,000 for venue charges, a violinist, a guitarist, and food for 200 people; about $42,000 in travel costs for 49 attendees; $7,800 for 68 shadowbox frames; $8,600 for an “appearance” by someone called “Agent X;” and $10,000 for “Mission Possible Agent X management.”

Asked what that referred to exactly, Sarah Breen, a spokeswoman for the inspector general, said the office was looking into it. A person who answered the telephone at the number for JDG Communications, the company apparently responsible for the “appearance”of “Agent X,” said that the company no longer exists and hung up.

The fallout from the inspector general probe into the Las Vegas bills was steep. GSA Administrator Martha Johnson resigned, two of her top deputies were fired and several other officials were placed on leave.

Johnson’s replacement, Acting Administrator Dan Tangherlini, informed Miller about the latest spending revelations. Breen said the event was under investigation but she could not comment further.

In a statement, GSA spokesman Betsaida Alcantara said that the type of spending involved with the conferences is no longer “tolerated.”

“As of April 2012 all spending for events, including training conferences, leadership events, team building exercises, award ceremonies, were suspended,” she said. “These events indicate an already recognized pattern of misjudgment which spans several years and administrations. It must stop…”

She said Tangherlini cut executive bonuses and put in place an agency-wide hiring freeze this week, and has also cancelled three dozen conferences.

“There’s a new sheriff at GSA, and it’s good to see that he’s turning over every rock to find wrongdoing and correct the abuses of the past,” Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri said in a prepared statement of the latest wrinkle in the GSA spending scandal. “I’m cautiously optimistic that uncovering these past abuses of taxpayer dollars means a new era of accountability and transparency at an agency that has sorely lacked both.”

McCaskill is chairwoman of the Senate Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight, which had been looking into GSA spending even before the Las Vegas scandal.

The agency’s inspector general already is involved in an ongoing investigation into the handing out of more than $1 million in taxpayer-funded bonuses since 2008 to GSA workers who were under scrutiny for misconduct.

Breen said she could not comment on whether any of the employees singled out at the Virginia awards event were among them.

Email: dgoldstein@mcclatchydc.com. Twitter:@GoldsteinDavidJ

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