Officials at the General Services Administration invented fake awards as an excuse to hold taxpayer-funded dinner events at conferences, according to an interview transcript obtained by Roll Call.
At one such event, GSA bestowed the “jackass award” on an employee, a GSA employee told the agency’s Office of Inspector General, according to the transcript.
The GSA is under fire because the inspector general revealed in an April 2 report that the agency spent almost $823,000 on an October 2010 Las Vegas conference for about 300 people. The inspector general also said officials violated scores of rules and regulations governing spending of taxpayer dollars.
In the wake of the report, GSA Administrator Martha Johnson resigned, two of her top aides were fired and four other managers were placed on leave.
House Republicans say the “jackass award” and other revelations in interviews conducted by the inspector general show that the problem is deeper than the Las Vegas conference.
“GSA has been using tax dollars as a slush fund to pay for lavish parties and exotic vacations. From what we’re learning, GSA has a whole laundry list of instances where they were abusing taxpayer dollars. This goes a lot farther and a lot deeper than what we’ve seen,” said Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), who chairs a Transportation and Infrastructure subpanel with jurisdiction over the GSA.
In the interview transcript obtained by Roll Call, a GSA employee who attended the Las Vegas conference said the administration’s officials routinely created awards to justify taxpayer reimbursement for dinner events.
“Typically at any — any conference in my memory over the last three or four years, probably even further back, there was always — there’s always one night where we have an awards ceremony and people are fed. I mean, it’s not even like it’s snacks. I mean, sometimes it’s pretty close to being like a full meal,” the employee said.
Describing the award ceremonies as a “running joke,” the employee said, supervisors explained that the fake awards were designed to justify dinner events at the conferences.
“He says: ‘OK, everybody, just remember, the only way we can have food is if we have an awards ceremony.’ Maybe not in those exact words, but fairly similar,” the employee said.
The employee then described some of the awards:
GSA employee: Well, there’d be like someone’s 30 years of service awards. Sometimes there’s just been ridiculous-type silly ass awards.
Office of Inspector General: Like — give me an example.
GSA employee: Well, I just remember one year like someone got like the jackass award or something for doing something stupid.
OIG: The jackass award got everybody food.
GSA employee: Oh, yeah.
OIG: Just because it was an award.
GSA employee: I mean, there was a bunch of them. There was a bunch of goofy awards.
OIG: Oh, okay.
GSA employee: It wasn’t just one goofy award. There were maybe six goofy awards.
The employee, who worked out of one of the western regional offices for whom the Las Vegas conference was for, said he did not remember at what specific conference the “jackass award” was given.
Republicans have ramped up their criticism of the GSA.
House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said: “Lavish and wasteful expenditures weren’t limited to one convention; they’re part of a disturbing culture of spending. In an unintended way, jackasses at GSA have helped expose the extent of the federal government’s spending problem.”
Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which has jurisdiction over the GSA, said, “There must be a ‘jackass award’ on just about every GSA leader’s desk since the Vegas junket is clearly just the tip of the iceberg.”
The GSA did not reply to requests for comment.
Dan Tangherlini, acting director of the GSA, issued an April 10 message via video that the expenditures at the conference were “completely unacceptable.”
“I speak for the overwhelming majority of GSA staff when I say that we are shocked and deeply disappointed by these indefensible actions,” Tangherlini said, outlining several steps the agency is taking to ensure wasteful spending at conferences does not happen again.