With issues like Solyndra and Operation Fast and Furious beginning to fade, the General Services Administration’s Las Vegas conference debacle is exactly what the House GOP needed to keep the investigative heat on the Obama administration.
The scandal that erupted last week has already sparked action by the House Transportation and Infrastructure and Oversight and Government Reform committees, as well as a stern response from Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and a comical tongue-lashing from “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart.
“Irony! The people holding the conference that wasted a ton of government money are the people in charge of making sure the government doesn’t waste a ton of money,” Stewart quipped, blasting the agency for spending thousands of dollars on commemorative coins and water bottles for conference-goers, as a report by GSA Inspector General Brian Miller revealed last week.
Miller reported that the GSA spent almost $823,000 on its biennial Western Regions Conference in 2010. Costs associated with the conference, held at the M Resort Spa Casino and attended by almost 300 people, included $75,000 for a team-building exercise and almost $147,000 in catered food and beverages costs.
A $31,000 “networking” reception cost $100 per attendee, and food for the entire conference grossly exceeded the allotted per diem for federal employees of $71 per day. The IG report prompted GSA Administrator Martha Johnson to resign Monday, and two of her deputies were fired.
The scandal involving wasteful government spending comes at a time when the unemployment rate remains above 8 percent and Democrats and Republicans regularly bicker about deficit reduction. The fact that the ordeal involves a pricey conference in America’s “Sin City” adds to the drama, and the whole ordeal prompted White House spokesman Jay Carney to declare last week that President Barack Obama “was outraged by the excessive spending, questionable dealings with contractors and disregard for taxpayer dollars.”
Making matters worse, however, was the surfacing of a six-minute video by GSA employee Hank Terlaje rapping about a lavish life in Las Vegas. The video, during which Terlaje boasted the GSA’s escapades would “never be under investigation,” was part of a talent contest and was given a top prize during an awards ceremony.
While House Republicans sought to blister the administration with investigations on Solyndra and the Justice Department’s Fast and Furious program, neither of those had the easily digestible visuals that have surfaced with the GSA incident.
Rep. Jeff Denham, who chairs the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management, called the Las Vegas ordeal “a big scandal” that could prompt lawmakers to propose an overhaul of the GSA.
“I am outraged with their not only wasteful spending, but they’ve actually gone out and bragged about it,” said the California Republican, whose subpanel will hold a hearing April 19 to look into the GSA scandal. “I am going to wait before we decide what type of restructuring needs to be done until we have a hearing.”
Denham added that his subcommittee would further probe the GSA’s Hats Off program, which doled out $200,000 in electronics and gift cards to employees of the Pacific Rim region as part of a staff awards program.
Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, one of the administration’s most outspoken critics on Capitol Hill, sent a letter to the inspector general last week asking for further details on the timeline of when administration officials were made aware of the Las Vegas conference.
In his letter to the inspector general, the California Republican notes that administration officials, including Johnson, were informed of the wasteful spending at a briefing in May 2011. In an interview with ABC News, Issa said, “This administration knew about this 11 months ago, and they didn’t act until the press got wind of it.”
One Democratic source, however, noted that it was the GSA’s own investigative arm that unveiled the dysfunction and charged that House Republicans are “just scrambling to inject themselves into the story.”
White House spokesman Eric Schultz noted that the administration was made aware of the report in March and that White House Chief of Staff Jacob Lew briefed Obama on the issue before his trip to South Korea last month.
Obama “called for the fullest degree of accountability possible given that these actions were not only grossly irresponsible, but they are also entirely inconsistent with the expectations that he has set as President,” Schultz said in a statement.