Remember Jeff Neely, the government official photographed living it up in a hot tub at a Las Vegas conference?
“He was the tip of the iceberg,” says Rep. John Mica, R-Fla.
Mica’s committee is now looking into wasteful spending at as many as 77 other General Services Administration (GSA) conferences – all uncovered in documents obtained by Fox News.
The documents, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, show the extent to which GSA dumped money into questionable conferences, sometimes with little or no record of spending. They also show that while the GSA was hosting lavish affairs, they were also doling out bonuses to their party guest employees.
One of the more troubling conferences was held in 2010 in Crystal City, Va., where GSA employees within the Federal Acquisition Service spent hours drumming in what administrators billed as a “team-building” exercise.
But while lawmakers first uncovered that conference earlier this month, documents obtained exclusively by Fox News show the event was the setting for millions of dollars worth of bonus handouts.
According to the records, more than 3,700 employees received bonuses averaging about $1,000 apiece at the conference. The cost to taxpayers was $3.6 million – minus the cost of the drumsticks, and the consultant who headed up the exercise.
Practices like this have drawn the ire of government watchdogs.
“The private company that hands out bonuses and rewards far beyond its ability to pay is going to be out of business. In the government, it seems to matter less because so many people seem to qualify,” said Tom Schatz, of Citizens Against Government Waste.
Fox News’ FOIA request found several GSA conferences have no record of spending – no receipts and no way to account for the cost associated with travel and conference spending.
“It wouldn’t surprise taxpayers to learn that these kinds of omissions occur at every agency. The lack of accountability is so bad that it’s impossible to fire anyone,” Schatz said. “It takes a hot-tub scandal to get rid of people at these agencies.”
Firing more GSA employees may be exactly what Mica, chairman of the House transportation committee, has in mind when he opens a new round of hearings Wednesday on the lavish GSA conferences.
“They tried to do everything they could to cover up the October 2010 Las Vegas fiasco. Now, we’re hearing there are dozens more. We’re going to drag in all the parties involved and get to the bottom of this scandal,” Mica told Fox News.
Questioned about the lack of accountability, a GSA spokesman sent a written response to Fox News which said:
“As of April 2012 all spending for events, including training conferences, leadership events, team building exercises, award ceremonies, were suspended. The 2010 awards ceremony was an annual event and has been in existence going back to 2002. Under the new GSA leadership these events and this type of spending are not tolerated.”
But Mica wants to inquire if, indeed, some of the wasteful spending practices have continued even after the departures of some administrators who had a hand in the profligate conference spending. “This is very disappointing. Some replacements may be involved in latest scandals so that complicated our investigation,” Mica said.
Still, Mica contends that that GSA’s out-of-town conference spending pales in comparison to the taxpayer money wasted on 14,000 vacant or underused properties that GSA oversees. It is part of GSA’s job to manage those properties and, when possible, sell them. “The underutilized assets that are sitting idle, wasted and abused cost taxpayers in the billions,” Mica said.
To help demonstrate that waste, The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will hold a field hearing next week at a vacant federal courthouse in Miami.