Lawmakers putting GSA's new conference spending rules to the test

Thursday - 8/2/2012, 5:44am EDT

Jason Miller, executive editor, Federal News Radio

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The General Services Administration will get the chance to prove its three-month- old rules governing conference spending are working.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee lawmakers were expected to ask the agency's inspector general to look into the 14th Annual SmartPay conference happening this week in Nashville.

Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) planned to send a letter to GSA IG Brian Miller today asking him to ensure GSA is following its rules and not repeating the mistakes of the October 2010 Western Regions Conference and others.

Last year, a committee spokeswoman said, GSA spent about $850,000 on the SmartPay conference. The spokeswoman said the committee wants to know how much the conference is costing this year.

Brian Miller, inspector general, GSA

"Over 6,000 rooms at the Gaylord in Nashville, I understand the Presidential suite is occupied today. Is there a GSA employee in the Presidential suite? It's over $3,000 per night," Denham asked Cynthia Metzler, GSA's chief administrative officer, during the committee's hearing on the Federal Acquisition Service's November 2010 performance awards conference.

Metzler, who testified because five other senior executives either couldn't or declined the committee's invitation, said she didn't know if employees were using the Presidential suite or even the junior suites.

"I would hope not," she said. "Under our policies, those rooms are not to be occupied by GSA employees."

Travel, conference spending frozen

The policies Metzler is referring to stem from the IG's report in April showing GSA's Public Building Service spent more than $823,000 on the Western Regions Conference near Las Vegas. The IG's findings led to then-GSA Administrator Martha Johnson firing PBS Commissioner Bob Peck and senior advisor Stephen Leeds and then resigning herself.

Current acting Administrator Dan Tangherlini issued a memo in April requiring all conference spending and travel to receive multiple approvals. Agency personnel also had to receive approval for several planned conferences, such as SmartPay.

Metzler's office is responsible for approving travel and conference expenses under the new rules.

GSA spokeswoman Mafara Hobson said no GSA employees are staying in the suites. She said only 48 out of the 6,000 attendees work for GSA.

She also said "the SmartPay conference is required and is held to improve the management of the government charge cards program. These jobs require continuous education for the managers of these cards. The conference holds more than 200 training sessions to educate agency charge card managers from across the government in issues such as: reconciliation and payment systems, detecting questionable transactions, best practices, etc."

Hobson also said GSA SmartPay contractor banks are required to provide annual training at the conference at no additional cost to the government.

Broadening investigation

But Denham wasn't satisfied with Metzler's answer. He also questioned the scheduled ride on a steamboat planned for the conference Wednesday night.

Cynthia Metzler, chief administrative services officer, GSA

"What is the travel necessity of the Gen. Jackson Lee steamboat that is taking a party out tonight? Are they going to a destination? Is that the reason for the travel expense of the steamboat?" he asked.

Metzler said GSA is not involved in the steamboat and, to the best of her knowledge, the agency is not paying for any of the steamboat event.

Hobson said the steamboat isn't part of the scheduled program that GSA controls.

The SmartPay conference likely will become another piece of a broadening investigation by the agency's IG.

"We've now received information that there may be as many as 77 conferences and award ceremonies that are now under review by the IG and the investigative committee of our staff," said Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), the committee chairman. "That's quite disturbing."

The committee spokeswoman said lawmakers have received cost data on 69 of the 77 conferences. GSA spent more than $28 million on those 69 events. She said the committee is waiting to hear back on eight others about the total dollars spent.

Interestingly, the spokeswoman said GSA didn't include the performance award events in those 77 conferences so the committee has asked for all awards events with more than 25 employees and that cost more than $10,000.

Miller said he didn't have anything to report on his investigation on the 77 conferences. He also offered few details on the November 2010 performance awards investigation — the reason for the hearing in the first place — saying his office uncovered a few new facts and cost figures.

Audit of pay underway

He also said his office is auditing GSA's executive compensation. This disclosure comes after news reports that GSA executives received a total of $44 million in bonuses.

Mica asked for more information about the bonuses, but neither Miller nor Metzler could answer any questions.

Most of the bonuses in question went to members of the Senior Executive Service, including those who won the Presidential Distinguished Rank Award.

SESers are exempted from the White House's request to hold bonuses to a minimum. By law, agencies are required to review SES performance and consider them for bonuses.

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) questioned Miller about the statistics on GSA bonuses and expressed doubt in the findings.

"This figure about 10 percent of the bonuses in the federal government come from GSA, which has 1 percent of the employees that would catch anybody's eye. Do you think that figure fairly represents the proportion of bonuses at GSA relative to other federal employees or agencies?" she asked.

Miller said he hadn't had a chance to evaluate the bonuses.

"Mr. Miller, I would ask among your priorities you look at that matter because I don't know what this characterization is," she said. "Frankly, I find it a little difficult to believe that agencies which have hundreds of thousands of employees don't have a larger percentage. So I don't accept that at face value."

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