In what is becoming the Obama administration's next major scandal, more details emerged Thursday about millions wasted in lavish conferences and wasteful bonuses for employees of the General Services Administration, the agency charged with managing and supporting the basic functioning of federal agencies.
One employee, congressional probers said, received hundreds of thousands in moving expenses while interns and other bureaucrats squandered hundreds of thousands at conferences in posh hotels.
The GSA inspector general was told this week that the agency spent $330,000 to move a single employee from Denver to Hawaii, an example of millions of dollars wasted in relocation costs.
On Thursday, congressional investigators also learned that interns at the organization had lavish digs -- far better than government interns in any other department.
The inspector general and a House committee learned that about 120 interns and 20 executives attended a weeklong conference for the interns in 2010 at a Palm Springs, Calif., resort.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee released a partial transcript of an inspector general's interview, in which an agency employee provided conference details.
The committee is one of three congressional panels that will conduct hearings next week on wasteful spending by the agency in charge of federal buildings and supplies.
The May 2010 conference was hosted by the same Western regional office that was responsible for a 2010 conference in a Las Vegas resort that cost about $823,000, Fox Business News reported.
Furthermore, Congressional probers say they have documents from the inspector general of the GSA that show one of the top GSA officials who attended the intern conference had a suite at the Palm Springs hotel -- the Riviera Palm Springs -- complete with two fireplaces and a spa.
Moreover, GSA top officials instructed those planning the Las Vegas conference to make it “over the top,” bigger and better than previous conferences, despite the White House’s push to cut waste.
Nearly $700,000 in taxpayer money was wasted on penthouse suites, tuxedo rentals, a mind reader, a clown, $75,000 on a team building bicycle training exercises, commemorative coins rewarding conference attendees (and those who couldn’t make it), expensive catering -- spending that was mocked by the GSA’s own workers in video. The GSA’s theme for the conference was “A Showcase of World-Class Talent.”
Moreover, the GSA blew more than $136,000 in taxpayer money just on workers scouting out locations for the October conference, where “location solvers” stayed in luxury rooms at the Ritz Carlton.
More details of huge waste of taxpayers resources emerged from a transcript of an interview between an inspector general's investigator and an employee who handled relocations.
The Associated Press obtained a transcript of the interview, which took place in March 2011.
"I mean that blew me away when I saw how much it costs to relocate somebody. It's crazy. It's astronomical," said the employee in the interview.
She said the person in charge of the expensive relocations was a real estate official known in GSA circles as "The Prince." The agency is in charge of the federal government's buildings and supplies.
"GSA's culture of lavish spending clearly goes well beyond a single convention. It's troubling to see the agency tasked with setting the standard for accountability and cost-cutting across the government evidently engaging in such abusive spending," said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.
Issa is chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, one of three congressional committees now looking into GSA spending.
The employee said that perks for those transferring included: house hunting, temporary quarters that at times was extended to 90 days, groceries, laundry, shipping a vehicle and household goods, paying the closing costs on a new home, and buying the former house if the employee can't sell it.
"I mean it's outrageous," the employee said in the interview.
Q. In the past two years how much do you think you've seen spent.
A. Oh, millions.
Q. And how many employees are we talking about.
A. I'd say, right now, probably about 15 files on my desk.
The employee said the individual who transferred from Denver to Hawaii only stayed with the agency for a year and then quit.
She said her management team "had told me not to tell anyone how much those things cost because people would just be really surprised at what we spent...."
In another interview, the inspector general was told GSA officials flew to Hawaii and on other taxpayer-funded junkets, sometimes for a week or more just for brief federal building ribbon-cutting ceremonies.
The interview was released by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
The GSA employee said several GSA officials flew to Hawaii for 5-to-7 days in 2011 to attend an hour-long ribbon cutting on space leased by the federal government.
The employee stated this was not an isolated incident.
"The Las Vegas conference was the tip of the iceberg, and every new example demonstrates the mind-boggling culture of waste and blatant disregard for the taxpayers' money within GSA," said the committee chairman, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla.
In a joint email to the more than 12,000 GSA employees, acting administrator Dan Tangherlini and Inspector General Miller promised there will be no retaliation against anyone reporting improper conduct and government waste.
The email is part of an aggressive effort by Tangherlini to change the culture in the agency that is in charge of federal buildings and supplies.
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