Exclusive: Taxpayers Paid for GSA Intern Conference

It’s not just workers at the General Services Administration who enjoyed lavish trips. GSA interns also got their own taxpayer-paid junkets.

New revelations in GSA inspector general documents show that the GSA flew interns at taxpayer expense to Palm Springs for a “networking” and a “thank you” conference in 2010, which wasn’t the first time.

“This was a yearly event,” says a Congressional investigator, and “the interns were flown in to Palm Springs from around the country.”

No dollar cost has been cited yet, but GSA had an estimated 150 interns in 2010, and a big number of them attended this conference, as well as top GSA officials, says Congressional investigators for Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), who is overseeing one of several hearings in Congress next week on the controversy.

Furthermore, Congressional probers say they have documents from the inspector general of the GSA that show one of the top GSA officials who attended the intern conference had a suite at the Palm Springs hotel -- the Riviera Palm Springs -- complete with two fireplaces and a spa.

The government agency, which polices federal spending on conferences and real estate, is now under fire for wasting more than $822,000 in taxpayer money on a lavish conference in October 2010 at the luxury M Resort Spa Casino just outside Las Vegas for 300 federal workers.

Moreover, GSA top officials instructed those planning the conference to make it “over the top,” bigger and better than previous conferences, despite the White House’s push to cut waste.

Nearly $700,000 in taxpayer money was wasted on penthouse suites, tuxedo rentals, a mind reader, a clown, $75,000 on a team building bicycle training exercises, commemorative coins rewarding conference attendees (and those who couldn’t make it), expensive catering -- spending that was mocked by the GSA’s own workers in video. The GSA’s theme for the conference was “A Showcase of World-Class Talent.”

Moreover, the GSA blew more than $136,000 in taxpayer money just on workers scouting out locations for the October conference, where “location solvers” stayed in luxury rooms at the Ritz Carlton.

Acting GSA chief Dan Tangherlini in an online video statement expressed outrage over the scandal: “What took place was completely unacceptable, there were violations of travel rules, acquisition rules and good conduct,” as well as violations of “rules of common sense, the spirit of public service and the trust that America’s taxpayers have placed in all of us.”

To date, a total of eight GSA employees had been disciplined, fired or resigned in connection to the scandal. Martha Johnson has since stepped down as head of the GSA, and has been invited to testify.

The GSA’s waste of taxpayer money on federal junkets has embarrassed the White House, as President Barack Obama now seeks to raise taxes on Americans who are already tightening their budgets, at a time when many people feel government spending has veered out of control.

The president now wants higher taxes on Americans via health reform as well as a “Buffett Tax” on the upper brackets, at a time when Government Accountability Office and other federal reports show the government routinely wastes hundreds of billions of dollars, and the federal deficit is about to surpass the gross domestic product, at $15 trillion.

Since President Obama took office, the federal government has added about $5 trillion in spending to the federal deficit. Last November, the White House issued an order, #13589 entitled “Promoting Efficient Spending,” which stipulates that federal agencies must sharply reduce federal spending on “federal travel,” conferences and “promotional items.”

Additional details are coming to light from the GSA’s inspector general’s office about its extravagant 2010 conference.

At the Vegas conference, the GSA blew taxpayer money on yearbooks, souvenir books and spent more than $146,500 on sumptuous buffets with beverages.

On the GSA’s menu: “Petit Beef Wellington,” “Mini Monte Cristo Sandwiches,” “American Artisanal Cheese Display,” 1,000 sushi rolls for $7.00 apiece, a “Pasta Reception Station,” a “Boursin Scalloped Potato with Barolo Wine Braised Short Ribs.” The GSA spent $44 per person on daily breakfasts, the IG report says.

Moreover, GSA violated federal rules by “promising” the luxury M Resort Spa Casino it would spend “an additional $41,480 in catering charges in exchange for the ‘concession’ of the hotel honoring the government’s lodging cost limit,” the GSA IG’s report says.

Meaning, the GSA would make it up to the hotel in food charges for having to bill the agency at the lower $93 a night government rates for rooms.

Moreover, two top GSA regional officials hosted three semi-private catered parties, including in upgraded rooms. Catering here totaled $5,600, the GSA IG’s report says.

GSA also blew taxpayer money on an internal website it created for the conference, including pictures and videos of conference events, which was taken down on March 23, 2012.

And what the GSA inspector general found notably egregious was the taxpayer money blown on workers who flew at taxpayer expense and stayed in hotels merely to find a spa resort for the GSA’s October conference.

The GSA dubbed these workers “Location Solvers” or “VIPs.”

When they flew into Vegas ahead of time, “they were shown upgraded suites that they received as a perk for GSA contracting with the M Resort for the 2010” conference, the IG says.

“Loft suites have 2,400 square feet of space, two stories, multiple HD televisions and wet bars, and a going rate of $1,179 per night,” the IG says.

In fact, the IG says that “five GSA employees conducted a ‘scouting trip’ to visit nine Las Vegas-area hotels.”

It adds: “These off-site meetings cost the government over $130,000,” including more than $100,400 in employee travel costs and over $30,000 on food -- “$57.72 per head lunches and $48.80 per head breakfasts.”

Here’s the itinerary for the GSA’s “Location Solvers,” according to the IG:

March ’09 Fifteen GSA employees returned to visit two of the nine hotels again, staying at the M Resort and the Ritz-Carlton.

August ’09 A second WRC planning meeting, attended by 11 GSA employees, was held at the M Resort following Region 9’s leadership council meeting.

November ’09 Sixteen GSA employees stayed at the M Resort again for a planning meeting.

March ’10 Nine GSA employees attended another planning meeting, this one at a Marriott Hotel in Denver, Colorado.

June ’10 Twenty-one GSA employees attended a conference planning meeting at the M Resort.

August ’10 Thirty-one GSA employees traveled to the M Resort for a “dry run” of the conference to be held later that month.

During a second trip in March of 2009, an employee stayed in a flat suite – with a connecting room for her sister and niece, the IG said . Another GSA worker got a room for his spouse’s relatives.