Government Agency Spent Over $400,000 on Incentive and Promotional Products, Investigation Shows
The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) spent nearly half a million on awards and gifts for its employees over four years, including more than $20,000 on promotional products for a single conference, a new report revealed.
As part of an investigation into the department's overspending, the United States Inspector General discovered that the GSA, which "leverages the buying power of the federal government to acquire best value for taxpayers and our federal customers" according to its website, spent $822,000 on a training conference for 300 employees in October 2010. The GSA's Western Regions Conference flew employees from its Public Buildings Services sector out to the M Resort Spa Casino in Las Vegas, violating several internal and governmental regulations in the process.
For the Western Regions Conference, the GSA spent $22,825 of taxpayer money on promotional items and gifts. The report details that $8,130 was spent on souvenir "yearbooks" for all attendees; $2,781.50 on canteens and carabiners; $3,749.40 on shirts for a "team-building activity"; $1,840 for vests; and $6,325 on commemorative coins. The GSA's policy specifically states that agency funds "are not available to purchase memento items for distribution to conference attendees as a remembrance of an event."
"The excessive pre-conference planning, catering, and other costs, as well as the luxury accommodations and overall approach, show that GSA's planning and expenditures for the 2010 WRC were incompatible with its obligation to be a responsible steward of the public's money," the report concluded. "As the agency Congress has entrusted with developing the rules followed by other federal agencies for conferences, GSA has a special responsibility to set an example, and that did not occur here."
Hours before the report's publication last week, GSA administrator Martha Johnson terminated her top advisor Stephen Leeds and Public Building Services chief Robert Peck, before resigning herself.
Days later, the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee issued a statement claiming that the GSA's "Hats Off" program, which allows employees to receive points redeemable for awards, "handed out $200,000 worth of taxpayer-funded iPods, electronics and gift cards for questionable reasons at best."
According to the Washington Post, the amount on all awards for GSA employees was much higher. In addition to the high-priced items like iPods and digital cameras, the "Hats Off" store let employees redeem credits for mugs, hats, mouse pads and other promotional items embellished with the GSA logo. In total, The Post reported $438,750 was spent on employee incentives between 2007 and 2010.
"The Hats Off award program degenerated into a taxpayer-funded give-away where employees handed out iPods to their office buddies for almost any reason," said Rep. John Mica, chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure committee. The GSA's guidelines limit awards to $99 per employee, per year, but several employees were gaming the system by exchanging award credits. "Not surprisingly the IG report identified the supervisors who ran the Hats Off store as the biggest winners of taxpayer swag. There was no accountability at GSA," Mica said.
Members of the House said there may have been more abuses of taxpayer funds by the GSA as well as other departments. "We're going to hold a hearing on this and find out not only every detail that was in the investigation, we actually want to subpoena those involved in this lavish spending and see how far this culture goes within other agencies," said Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., chairman of the Subcommittee on Economic Development. Denham said a hearing on the spending, held in conjunction with the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is scheduled for April 19.