Government Departments Under Investigation and Review for Conference Spending

DANICA TORMOHLEN, EDITOR-AT-LARGE
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Washington, DC – The Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) Office is under investigation for conference spending at two four-day events for about 1,800 VA employees in July and August 2011 at the Marriott World Center in Orlando, FL. “Investigations are underway regarding the VA’s authorization of approximately $9 million to hold a series of conferences last year in Florida,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, in a statement.

In addition, Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has requested a review of 64 conferences produced by the Department of Defense from 2005 to 2011 that cost taxpayers more per attendee than the General Services Administration (GSA) 2010 conference in Las Vegas, which sparked outrage for taxpayer expenditures used for a mind reader, commemorative coins, bicycles for a team-building exercise, and trips by GSA employees and their family members to the Las Vegas strip.

To date, the committee has determined there are 152 government-sponsored conferences, produced by 10 agencies and departments, which spent more per attendee than the GSA 2010 conference. More may or may not added in the future, as the committee is waiting on documentation requested in April from a number of government organizations to perform its initial review of all conference spending.

With all the publicity and misinformation surrounding recent allegations over government spending on conferences, Trade Show Executive takes an in-depth look at the charges and interviews government officials and industry leaders about the issues surrounding the debate.

The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has confirmed that an investigation began in April after a phone call was made to the OIG’s hotline, but Catherine Gromek, Office of Inspector General, Department of Veterans Affairs, told Trade Show Executive she cannot confirm the costs until all documents have been reviewed.

“To date, all indications are that the conferences were for legitimate training purposes,” said Inspector General George Opfer in a statement. But investigators “have uncovered questionable activities” during the review process.

“In preliminary findings, multiple planning trips to multiple destinations cost the taxpayers thousands of dollars, VA employees are reported to have received gifts, including alcohol, concert tickets, and spa treatments, and tens of thousands of dollars were spent on promotional items for attendees,” said Miller.

A Wakeup Call for All Organizers
“This should serve as a wake-up call for our industry,” said Steven Hacker, CAE, FASAE, president of the International Association for Exhibitions & Events. “We need to do a better job of defining site inspections, and the valid role they play in planning process. Organizers typically start with four to five venues and then begin to narrow down their options through site inspections. It can take two to four additional planning trips to nail down the requirements, depending on the size and complexity of the event.”

Rob Bergeron, acting executive director, Society of Government Meeting Professionals (SGMP), added, “SGMP understands that significant scrutiny for government meetings will continue in the near term until appropriate spending levels have been established. A site inspection plays an important role in the planning process because it provides critical information to ensure that the meeting can be properly executed. This enhances the overall cost-effectiveness of the government meeting.”

While some of these expenses are allowed under government rules and regulations, the OIG said, “We are reviewing conference expenditures for compliance with government laws and regulations, the reasonableness and oversight of these expenditures, and whether actions taken by VA staff were in compliance with government ethics and rules of behavior.”

“Government meeting planners are clearly the most vulnerable to scrutiny because they are using taxpayer dollars, but the government does have clear ethical policies and guidelines in place,” Hacker told Trade Show Executive. “In every case we’ve seen recently, there’s been an abuse of the existing policy. That doesn’t mean the industry practices are incorrect, that means one or more individuals has abused the system.”

“Site visits and promotional products are another issue, and it’s more common to see abuse in these areas,” said Hacker. “Most organizations have ethics policies in place to address dollar limits and other qualitative measures, but there is no role whatsoever in having a spouse or other family members attend a site visit with an organizer. We have to do a better job of maintaining conduct that is unimpeachable.”

“If the results of the IG investigation are upheld, this represents an egregious misuse of funds meant to provide for the care of America’s veterans,” said Miller. “The Office of the Inspector General is continuing its investigation, and I have authorized the Committee to offer its full assistance to the IG’s office in determining the extent of these allegations, as well as to ensure that the new law is strictly enforced at VA.”

The allegations of the VA’s misuse of funds follows the news in April that the General Services Administration (GSA) spent more than $800,000 on a 2010 conference for government employees in Las Vegas — a fraction of the alleged costs of the VA conferences being investigated.

The inspector general’s full report on the conference is expected in September.

Formal Review of Conference Spending
On August 22, Issa sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta asking for additional documentation and information on the 64 conferences in question by September 5. “The committee has analyzed thousands of documents obtained from federal agencies and citizen watchdogs related to conference spending in the executive branch,” Issa wrote. “Any conference that cost taxpayers more per person than GSA’s 2010 conference in Las Vegas raised a red flag.”

According to the committee, GSA’s 2010 conference in Las Vegas cost taxpayers $3,002.20 per attendee for planning, travel, lodging, food and beverage, and activities for the duration of the conference. It cost $600.44 per attendee, per day for the five-day conference.

In July, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee also sent letters to nine other departments and agencies requesting additional documentation and information about 88 government-sponsored conferences that spent more per attendee than the GSA 2010 conference. Those departments and agencies include the Departments of Agriculture, Interior, Health & Human Services, Education, and Housing & Urban Development, as well as GSA, Small Business Administration, Social Security Administration and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The committee requested that the documentation be provided by July 26.

“The committee is currently in the process of reviewing the additional documentation from those departments and agencies that responded, but not all of them have to date,” Ali Ahmad, communications adviser, Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told Trade Show Executive. He said the committee does not have a timeline for releasing that information at this point.

A copy of the letters, which includes the complete list of conferences in question, is available at: http://oversight.house.gov

Reach Amy Mitchell, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, at (202) 225-3527; Catherine Gromek at (202) 461-4527 or Catherine.Gromek@va.gov; Rob Bergeron at (703) 549-0892 or rob.bergeron@sgmp.org; Steven Hacker at (972) 458-8002 or shacker@iaee.com; Ali Ahmad at (202) 225-0037 or Ali.Ahmad@mail.house.gov