In October 2010, the General Services Administration (GSA) held its biennial Western Regions Conference (WRC), which had approximately 300 attendees, at the M Resort Spa and Casino located in Las Vegas, Nev.
On Monday, April 2, the Office of the Inspector General released a Management Deficiency Report that found many of the expenditures for this conference were excessive and wasteful and that in many instances, GSA officials didn’t even follow federal procurement laws on conference spending.
The total cost of the conference reached more than $820,000, with more than $136,000 spent on pre-conference planning.
In the wake of the report, GSA Administrator Martha Johnson resigned from the agency, but not before she dismissed two senior leaders from within the Agency.
“The excessive spending and other misconduct described in the report would be absolutely unacceptable under any circumstances,” wrote Johnson in response to a draft of the report. “But it is especially egregious at a time when the fiscal constraints facing our nation demand that every dollar deliver the greatest value to the American taxpayer. Such misconduct will not be tolerated at GSA.”
According to a statement by Greg Mecher, GSA spokesperson, it was Johnson who initially called for the Inspector General (IG) to investigate the expenditures for the conference.
“When it was brought to her attention that a potential misuse of funds may have occurred with regard to the Western Regions Conference, the GSA Deputy Administrator asked GSA’s inspector general to look into the matter,” said Mecher. “The IG spent over a year conducting this inquiry. Having now received the IG’s report, GSA concurs with the IG’s recommendations and is appalled by its findings.”
Johnson’s letter of resignation from the GSA was accepted by President Barack Obama on April 2, the same day it was offered.
In the letter, Johnson spoke about the positive accomplishments of the GSA, but admitted that the Agency made a “significant mis-step.”
“Reports of an internal conference in which taxpayer dollars were squandered led me to launch internal reviews, take disciplinary personnel action and institute tough new controls to ensure this incident is not repeated,” wrote Johnson. “In addition, I feel I must step aside as Administrator so that the Agency can move forward at this time with a fresh leadership team.”
According to the GSA, it will review the need for further disciplinary action where it is warranted and implement reforms to its accounting procedures as a result of this incident.
“The General Services Administration has made eliminating excessive spending and promoting efficiency one of its top priorities and is taking steps to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again,” said Mecher.
Key findings from the Management Deficiency Report also include:
- GSA spending on conference planning was excessive, wasteful, and in some cases impermissible. To select a venue and plan the conference, GSA employees conducted two “scouting trips,” five off-site planning meetings and a “dry run.” Six of these planning events took place at the M Resort (the conference venue) itself. Travel expenses for conference planning totaled $100,405, and catering costs totaled over $30,000.
- GSA incurred excessive and impermissible costs for food at the WRC. GSA spent $146,527 on catered food and beverages during the WRC.
- The PBS Region 9 Commissioner/Acting Regional Administrator instructed those planning the conference to make it “over the top,” bigger and better than previous conferences. Several suggestions by regional employees that costs be reined in were ignored.
- GSA awarded a $75,000 contract to Most Valuable Performers (also known as Delta4) to provide a morning team-building exercise during the conference, followed by an afternoon bicycle-building project that would use the new teamwork skills.
On April 4, Charles Sadler, executive director and CEO of the Society of Government Meeting Professionals issued the following statement about IG’s report.
“The findings in the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) Inspector General’s report regarding GSA’s 2010 Western Regions Conference (WRC) is disturbing for anyone who understands the government meeting planning process and certainly for any American citizen. But this apparent instance of excessive spending is newsworthy in part because it’s unusual. Decades of experience demonstrate that the vast majority of government conferences are productive and cost effective. Government travel plays a significant role in the U.S. economy as a whole and no one will want to endure the economic hardship individuals and businesses would experience if leaders take the knee jerk approach and drastically reduce or shutdown government meetings and travel.
The federal government maintains strict rules regarding spending and ethics when it comes to travel and, as in this case, when those rules are broken those responsible should be held accountable. The entire government meetings industry should not be judged on this one grossly “over the top” executed event. It clearly demonstrates the importance of agencies having a professional meeting planner versed in the proper processes of solicitation, contract awards and event execution, as required by government policy, the procurement process and ethical conduct standards.
GSA’s black eye for this 2010 WRC meeting will be SGMP members’ and leaders’ golden opportunity to advocate for the training and certification of government planners. This acknowledgement of the importance of providing education and resources for meeting planning is the first step toward ensuring that government policy and best practices for efficient, cost effective meetings are the standard—starting with the career government employee and continuing all the way up to the appointee who may head a federal agency.”