The same General Services Administration (GSA) regional office that hosted the more-than $800,000 conference in Las Vegas in 2010 was also responsible for putting on a weeklong conference for GSA interns at a luxurious Palm Springs resort.
According to information from the GSA Inspector General and interviews with GSA employees, the May 10-14, 2010 intern conference at the Palm Springs Riviera Resort and Spa included approximately 120 interns and 20 GSA Region 9 executives.
The five-day event included a catered awards ceremony, at an estimated $75 to $100 per person, which wouldn't count against the $71/day employee per diem for meals, because GSA called the food "light refreshments.'
Some who attended the conference also reportedly stayed in suites (which the resort's website describes as "opulent").
"GSA has been spreading the taxpayers' wealth, providing luxurious junkets not only for high-level executives but for its interns as well," said U.S. Rep. John L. Mica (R-FL), Chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "Interns in Congressional offices often work out of small storage areas or spaces cleared out in a hallway -- they do not get sent to resorts and spas for a week on the taxpayers' dime."
"The extent of waste and misuse of taxpayer dollars by GSA appears to have no end," said U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham, Chairman of the Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management Subcommittee. "As we continue to learn of GSA's extreme misuse of funds, now adding "opulent' intern retreats to our taxpayers' tabs, there must be serious action taken for this type of blatant waste of tax dollars by the General Services Administration."
According to interviews, some GSA officials appear to have become adept at getting around rules and standards in order to spend more taxpayer dollars on expensive meals and events. The following is a redacted transcript excerpt from an interview conducted by the Inspector General's office:
GSA employee: Yeah. So I asked after the intern conference because I -- I was thinking about how much it must have cost for that stand-up finger food award thing. And it was --
IG's office: I'm sorry. Which conference are we talking about?
GSA employee: Intern conference.
IG's office: The intern conference.
IG's office: Okay. Thank you.
GSA employee: And I estimated out of my mind that they spent $100 a person on finger food, and nobody had to deduct it off of their voucher. Nobody had to deduct it. And we spent $100 probably per person on finger food.
IG's office: Because it wasn't considered a meal?
GSA employee: Yeah.
IG's office: When you call it light refreshments.
GSA employee: You call it light refreshments. They had pasta. How do you eat pasta with your fingers?
IG's office: Yeah.
GSA employee: They had a carver. How do you pick up prime rib with your fingers? They had oysters on the half shell. Yeah, you can pick them up, but why are we eating that?...
And that one -- and the thing is [redacted] always says when [redacted] gives out awards -- and [redacted] makes them up . Now, we have awards for interns that are graduating. That's an award?....
IG's office: It's an internship.
GSA employee: It's just that -- so we have big finger food --
IG's office: Yeah.
GSA employee: -- things. And [redacted]'ll say, you guys know why we're doing this, don't you?
And [redacted]'ll say, we have to have awards because that's how we have? And everyone says food --
IG's office: Right.
GSA employee: -- and refreshments. It's a joke.
IG's office: Yep.
GSA employee: It is a joke.
In addition, according to the interview, some GSA officials apparently tried to disguise the location of the intern conference, as well as the subsequent Las Vegas conference, by citing a different, less well-known location for the event in records relating to expenditures:
GSA employee: Yeah. They might have not called it Palm Springs.
IG's office: Slick little -- yeah. It's something --
GSA employee: Sideways.
IG's office: Yeah.
GSA employee: Non resort sounding --
IG's office: Yes.
GSA employee: -- place.
IG's office: Yeah. Like this was Henderson, Nevada, by the way. It wasn't Vegas. It was in Henderson, Nevada.
GSA employee: Henderson. I know.
Denham and Mica will lead a Congressional oversight hearing entitled "GSA's Squandering of Taxpayer Dollars: A Pattern of Mismanagement, Excess and Waste" at 8:30 a.m. next Tuesday, April 17, 2012 in 2167 Rayburn House Office Building.