Politics & Policy

A New GSA Scandal Says ‘Aloha’?

At the agency disgraced a few years ago for wasteful conferences, questionable spending and opaque accounting don’t seem to have stopped.

A single General Services Administration region spent more than $61,000 on hotels in Hawaii last year, shelling out thousands of dollars at beachfront resorts, according to travel-card purchases reviewed by National Review.

The transactions reveal that Region 9 employees stayed in luxurious lodgings, including the Hilton Hawaii Waikiki Beach Resort, a hotel set on 22 oceanfront acres featuring five pools and 20 restaurants and bars, and the four-star oceanfront Moana Surfrider Spa and Resort.

Employees from Region 9, which serves Arizona, California, Hawaii, and Nevada, spent taxpayer money to dine at Ruth’s Chris Steak House and the Yard House, a high-end sports bar known for having more than 100 beer taps. Employees also withdrew nearly $8,400 in cash advances in Hawaii from their GSA-issued travel cards.

Hawaii’s GSA office already employs 39 workers; the data reviewed doesn’t show whether Region 9 unnecessarily sent employees to the Aloha State. The Hawaii office has no project managers assigned to it, so Region 9 reportedly sent some to help oversee a stimulus-funded green upgrade for the Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole Federal Building and Courthouse. It’s unclear whether any non-project managers traveled to Hawaii, too.

Region 9 failed to answer many of NRO’s questions sent by e-mail, including how GSA justified such high travel costs, or what safeguards the agency had established to ensure employees complied with lodging and per diem policies.

Spokeswoman Traci Madison wrote in an e-mail: “Since 2012, GSA has implemented strong policies to improve oversight and strengthen controls on any spending for conferences or travel, saving millions in taxpayer dollars. Our agency remains committed to eliminating excessive federal spending and promoting government efficiency.” She could not be reached on deadline for follow-up questions.

Brian Miller, the former GSA inspector general who issued the blockbuster report on wasteful and abusive spending at the agency’s 2010 Las Vegas conference, tells NRO that without more information about Region 9’s Hawaii travel, it’s hard to make a determination about whether the spending was justified.

“It all comes down to getting the best value for the taxpayer dollar,” says Miller, who now works at Navigant Consulting. “Typically beachside hotels do not fall into that category and should not be part of the equation, unless, of course, they are within the government per diem.”

Whistleblowers have repeatedly raised concerns about wasteful travel spending in Region 9, according to records from the inspector general’s office obtained by NRO.

One Region 9 employee told the inspector general’s office of alleged misconduct by employees from Public Buildings Services, a GSA subagency, who “had traveled to numerous locales, including Asia, Guam, Hawaii and Las Vegas, claiming to be performing official business,” according to a May 2012 memorandum of interview.

And in an April 2012 e-mail to the GSA inspector general’s fraud hotline, a Region 9 employee complained about “inappropriate practices and abuse of travel funds,” claiming an Office of Acquisition Services director had traveled to Hawaii for an unnecessary face-to-face meeting with another employee.

“Could not this meeting be done via a video teleconference or a teleconference, was this trip a wise expense of taxpayer funds?” the whistleblower asked.

Meanwhile, in September, a federal grand jury indicted the region’s former executive, Jeff Neeley, after allegations that he had “fraudulently sought reimbursement for personal travel and expenses,” according to a Department of Justice news release. A congressional report claimed Neeley took his wife on a 17-day, taxpayer-funded trip to Hawaii, Guam, and Saipan, calling it her “birthday present.”

— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.

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