Senators probe GSA financial controls after conference scandal

Tuesday - 5/15/2012, 9:38am EDT

Leaders of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Thursday asked the General Services Administration to provide details about its financial management and internal controls aimed at preventing waste, fraud and abuse, in the wake of a scathing inspector general report about GSA's 2010 Western Regions Conference (WRC) held near Las Vegas.

Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Ranking Member Susan Collins (R-Maine), whose committee is tasked with overseeing agency efficiency and effectiveness, requested the information in a nine-page letter, released to the public Monday and filled with questions about conference spending, travel, awards and contracting. They addressed the letter to Acting GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini.

GSA spent nearly $823,000 on the training conference, according to the IG report, which detailed "excessive, wasteful, and in some cases impermissible" spending and improper procurement practices.

"It is never appropriate for an agency to skirt acquisition rules and policies and waste tax dollars in the process," Lieberman and Collins wrote in the letter. "These issues are even more troubling given GSA's unique and lead role in contracting and management of travel and conference planning."

One question focuses on travel by a regional Public Buildings Service commissioner who was placed on administrative leave, following news of the conference.

"At times, the PBS Commissioner for Region 9, Jeff Neely, apparently approved his own travel because he was also serving as acting administrator for Region 9," the senators wrote. "Have you, or do you intend to, put in place procedures to ensure that employees, including those serving in 'acting' positions, do not approve their own travel or other expenses or otherwise ensure that all employees' travel expenses are adequately reviewed?"

Other parts of the letter focused on the apparent lack of competition for conference-related contracts, including one for M Resorts, which hosted the conference.

"Although a solicitation for conference sites was published by PBS in February 2009, a GSA contracting officer (who had not been involved in, and, inexplicably, was not aware of, the initial solicitation) wrote a memo dated September 29, 2010 justifying a sole source award to M Resorts because, according to the memo, the October 2010 WRC was a 'very time sensitive procurement' and it 'would have been a waste of government funds' to review the nine sites deemed to satisfy initial criteria," according to the senators' letter.

Recommendation to review other conferences, per diem

In all, the letter contains 41 multi-part questions for Tangherlini, with answers due by May 31. But the senators also included recommendations for the GSA chief financial officer to review spending associated with all of agency's recent conferences. The goal is to identify possible wasteful or illegal spending.

Lieberman and Collins also requested the CFO investigate per diem expenses "to ensure that GSA employees who received meals as part of a conference did not also claim per diem expenses for those meals, as did some employees who attended the WRC."

Request for more IG oversight

While Lieberman and Collins directed the bulk of questions to the GSA acting administrator, they also asked IG Brian Miller to keep an extra eye on GSA by separately investigating the agency's conference and travel spending.

"Should your initial review find any other extravagant or potentially illegal spending on conferences, or any suspicious travel expenses — including unusually long trips and large expenses claimed for travel in an employee's local area--we ask that you conduct a full investigation as you did with the WRC, and let us know the findings," they wrote in a May 10 letter to Miller.

The senators also asked Miller to further investigate contracts supporting activities by GSA regional offices "to determine the frequency with which they violate procurement regulations. Such a sampling would help determine the need for additional audits of particular regions or programmatic activities. Furthermore, both GSA and Congress would benefit from your examination of, and recommendations on how to improve, GSA's recruitment, certification, and training of contract officers."

The remaining requests focused on the use of travel cards, ideas for improving internal oversight, and the status of Miller's recommendations to GSA management, as they relate to the WRC.

"As we've said, the actions of the Western Regions Conference are not consistent with how GSA conducts business," said Adam Elkington, GSA spokesman. "We were appalled by the missteps highlighted in the IG's report, have taken disciplinary action against those responsible, accepted all of the IG's recommendations and are conducting a top down review of our agency's operations. We welcome responsible oversight and look forward to working with the committee on this matter. Our agency remains committed to eliminating excessive federal spending and promoting government efficiency."

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