But despite the disclaimer, lawmakers have been looking for red flags on conference spending following an $823,000 Las Vegas-area conference the GSA put on for 300 of its employees in 2010. It is alleged that Jeff Neely, a top GSA administrator, spent $2,700 in taxpayer money on a party in a hotel suite and hired a clown and a mind reader to perform. At a House hearing last month, Neely declined to answer questions about the conference and invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
“Assuming a four night stay, even at the ‘run of the house’ rate, this would cost at least $920 for each judge who attends,” the Senators wrote in their letter. “At this rate, assuming that attendance is consistent with the 2010 conference held in Maui, which drew almost 700 participants, accommodations for the conference would cost more than $500,000.”
The conference website lists the government per diem rate for Maui as $289 per day. It lists “150 percent of per diem” as $433 per day, and the “alternative daily maximum per diem for judges” as $397 per day.
The letter also points to several extraneous events that run the risk of wasting taxpayer dollars, including sport fishing and a golf tournament.
“Through out the conference there are other activities unrelated to the business of the court, including yoga, surfing, stand-up paddle board lessons, Zumba (a Latin-inspired dance program), a tennis tournament, a day trip and tour of Up-country Maui, a Gemini Catamaran snorkel trip, and an activity called ‘the Aloha Experience,” the letter said. “While the [court’s web]site makes it clear that government funds are not to be used for any recreational or sporting activities and that court-related matters will be substantively considered, the program reads more like a vacation than a business trip to discuss the means of improving the administration of justice.”
Grassley and Sessions said approximately 700 people participated in the 2010 conference in Maui, and travel costs were $657,000.
The combined travel costs for the previous two conferences before that, held in Monterey, Calif., and Sun Valley, Idaho, were $860,000, Grassley and Sessions said. An email sent to conference organizers seeking comment was not immediately returned.
The letter contained a list of 18 questions, about half of which inquired about past conference practices, attendees and expenses.
The rest of the questions centered on this summer’s conference, including “Why was the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa selected as the venue?”
The letter asks for responses to the questions no later than June 15, “before any additional funds are expended towards this conference ... so that we might have a better understanding of why it is necessary to submit this conference bill to taxpayers.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.