Seven months after their scandalous $823,000 Las Vegas conference featuring clowns and a mind-reader, General Services Administration staffers returned to the same resort and worked with the same controversial contractor, according to newly obtained records from the office of the inspector general (OIG).
“It seems to me . . . [that] to go back to this hotel and award contracts to the same vendor is beyond ‘common and acquisition sense,’ in light of the current [Western Regional Conference] fall out,” a whistleblower wrote to federal investigators in April 2012, around the publication time of the OIG’s damning report on the 2010 Western Regional Conference.
During the subsequent conference in late May and early June 2011, taxpayers footed the cost for $50-per-gallon lemonade and $62-per-gallon gourmet coffee and tea, according to invoices reviewed by National Review Online.
Attendees also enjoyed lavish meals, including a $44-per-person Las Vegas Strip-view lunch and a $42 “Fiesta lunch buffet,” even though the GSA’s own per-diem allotment for lunch in Las Vegas was no more than $18.
The GSA’s Region 9 chose to hold the conference at M Resort Spa Casino, the same venue as the much-publicized Western Regional Conference.
“Market research was never completed,” the GSA OIG wrote in its case-closing memorandum, and the acting regional commissioner of the Federal Acquisition Service (FAS) later admitted to being unaware of “how or why this location was chosen, especially since there was only 1 . . . staff person based in Las Vegas,” according to a 2013 interview with an OIG agent.
Travel alone for the 21 attendees, “less cost of breakfast and lunch,” cost $17,429.89, according to a breakdown provided by the OIG.
In an apparent attempt to cover up the big spending on the resort hotel, the GSA employee who handled the M Resort Spa Casino reservation paid the bill by making several small transactions on a government credit card instead of paying it all at once, records show.
Such “split purchase” transactions, which are prohibited, are “generally intended to hide large one-time transactions . . . to circumvent the $3,500 limit on government purchase cards,” an IG interview report related to the case notes. Also, while big transactions must be reported, such so-called micro-purchases aren’t subject to the same transparency standards.
The GSA employee’s card was later confiscated, but he or she “did not receive any other discipline except verbal counseling” and “acted very non-committal without admitting any knowledge or guilt,” the Region 9 FAS deputy regional commissioner later told an OIG agent.
The 2011 conference was supposed to help with “team-building,” according to records obtained by NRO.
One employee, whose name was redacted, sent the official agenda, noting “no ties or formal wear allowed” and writing: “That’s right, no boring speeches or exhausting powerpoint training presentations. Okay — well maybe one!”
Taxpayers covered the cost of a $28,500 contract for leadership training through a company referred to under several different names, including Delta 4 and Most Valuable Performers.
At the 2010 Western Regional Conference, the same company led a controversial “team-building” bicycle-assembly project that cost taxpayers $75,000.
For the 2011 Region 9 conference, Most Valuable Performers submitted a 13-page proposal for its training activities, marked confidential and proprietary. The OIG redacted the proposal almost in its entirety, citing an exemption that covers trade secrets. The company did not respond to NRO’s inquiries about the activities that were conducted.
A report of an OIG interview with an attendee says that “although there were no magicians or bicycle-building projects . . . the same consultant who spoke at the [earlier] conference and handed out certain ‘carabiner’ souvenirs was the same consultant who spoke at the  Conference and handed out the same carabiners.”
All together, the 2011 Region 9 conference cost $53,319, or $2,539 for each of the 21 attendees. In comparison, the much-publicized 2010 Western Regional Conference cost around $2,740 for each of its estimated 300 attendees.
“These actions occurred three years ago, and are not consistent with how GSA conducts business,” GSA spokeswoman Jackeline Stewart said in an e-mailed statement to NRO. “Under Administrator Dan Tangherlini’s leadership we have implemented strong policies to improve oversight and strengthen controls on any spending for conferences or travel, saving millions in taxpayers dollars. Our agency remains committed to eliminating excessive federal spending and promoting government efficiency.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.