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Fast Times at the GSA
No one can party like our government’s sybaritic fiscal watchdogs.

Jeffrey Neely of the General Services Administration (GSA)

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Rich Lowry

Mitt Romney says he likes to fire people. If elected, can the General Services Administration be his first target?

A few (but not enough) heads have already rolled at the agency that threw itself an infamous Las Vegas conference that could have been planned by former Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski before he went to jail. The GSA couldn’t outdo Kozlowski, who threw his wife a birthday party on an Italian island with an ice sculpture of Michelangelo’s David that urinated vodka (and billed his company for half the cost), but it undertook its conference planning with same sense of frugality and good taste.

Charged with supporting federal operations, the GSA turns out to be a cynical wastrel. Prior to the conference, word came down from on high that it should be “over the top” — in other words, in the spirit of an over-the-top era of stimulus, when spending more is always assumed to be better. The GSA spent $6,325 on commemorative coins to reward its employees, fittingly enough, for their work on Recovery Act projects. It’s a wonder that Keynesians aren’t defending the $820,000 conference as a jobs creator, a notion that wouldn’t be any more absurd than the case they make for “shovel-ready” projects and green energy.

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Such is the conference’s notoriety that the headline on a recent Las Vegas Sun article was: “Nevada lawmakers don’t want GSA scandal to put Las Vegas in bad light.” The event was the biennial Western Regions Conference of the Public Buildings Service of the GSA, and if that doesn’t sound like a good time, you’ve never partied with the GSA. A great deal of thought was put into how to sidestep and exploit every rule in the interest of gouging the government.

According to an inspector-general report, the GSA undertook two “scouting trips,” five off-site planning meetings, and a “dry run” for the conference. The Osama bin Laden raid might not have been so elaborately planned. Most of this painstaking preparation took place at the four-star M Resort Spa Casino outside Vegas (“the floor-to-ceiling windows offer an incredible view from every room”), where the 300 GSA employees gathered for the conference itself. All told, travel and catering costs for planning alone ran $136,000.

Then, on to the main event: more food. For the petit beef Wellington and mini Monte Cristo sandwiches at the “networking reception,” for the Boursin scalloped potato with Barolo wine–braised short ribs at the party prior the closing dinner, for all the breakfast buffets and in-room parties, the GSA paid $146,000. Since government rules allow for free food at award ceremonies, the GSA was sure to give out awards liberally, including at a $2,700 invitation-only concluding party in a loft suite.

The GSA paid $75,000 for a team-building exercise and $58,000 for audio-visual services (to play embarrassingly juvenile music videos starring GSA employees). To give it all a patina of high-mindedness, employees built 24 bikes to give to the local Boys and Girls Club, except the GSA had to finesse its own red tape to do it. “If the government acquires property,” the inspector-general report relates, “it may only dispose of that property pursuant to the Federal Surplus Property Donation Program — created by GSA itself to enable all federal agencies to comply with the Property Act.”

Conference organizer Jeffrey Neely boasted at the end of the confab about the “unforgettable” event. Even as the inspector general closed in on his profligacy, he got a $9,000 bonus from his GSA superiors. He was last seen taking the Fifth at a congressional hearing.

Most federal employees aren’t like Jeffrey Neely; some of them risk their lives to save ours. But the GSA scandal is yet another reminder of the waste and laxity inevitable in organizations where it’s difficult to fire anyone and all the pennies are from heaven. The new rule should be that all federal off-site conferences must be held at a Motel 6 in Omaha, Neb.

— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry(at sign)nationalreview.com. © 2012 by King Features Syndicate



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