In 2009, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) urged the White House and individual federal agencies to lift government travel bans on “cities known as resort towns” like Las Vegas — the site of a controversial $823,000 General Services Administration conference in 2010.
Reid and then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel exchanged letters in the summer of 2009, with Reid urging the administration to publicly support government meetings and conferences in cities like Las Vegas. Emanuel wrote to Reid that he agreed that “federal policy should not dictate the location where government events are held.”
Reid also solicited commitments from two dozen federal agencies to not discriminate against any city in choosing sites for their events and posted their letters of support to his Senate website. One of those agencies to write a letter to Reid was the GSA.
“GSA’s policy regarding conference planning is consistent with the views expressed by the President’s Chief of Staff, Mr. Rahm Emanuel, in his letter,” acting GSA Administrator Paul Prouty wrote in an Aug. 19, 2009, letter. “GSA focuses on obtaining the best value for the Government when planning meeting or conferences.” Prouty’s successor, GSA Administrator Martha Johnson, resigned in the wake of the Vegas scandal.
As part of his campaign to encourage government offices to allow travel to Las Vegas, Reid posted a YouTube video touting the Emanuel letter and the White House’s commitment to open bidding for conferences, regardless of the town.
“President Obama has taken some flak as a result of people saying why did he do this? He didn’t do it,” Reid says of the ban in the video. “It started in the Bush administration. They sent two letters of directions saying don’t go to Nevada. So what I did was send a copy of the president’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s letter to every government agency in Washington. They all know now very clearly that Las Vegas and Reno are on limits, not off limits.”
Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson defended the Majority Leader’s 2009 actions today, saying that the government fraud and abuse demonstrated in the GSA scandal could have happened in any city.
“It has nothing to do with where they had the conference — you could have had that conference anywhere and wasted taxpayer money,” Jentleson said. “It had to do with the lack of judgment of the people who planned it.
“Sen. Reid believes that Vegas is one of the premier travel destinations and a great place to hold conferences, but when taxpayer money is involved it should be done with the utmost responsibility, and clearly that did not happen in this case,” Jentleson added.
Four GSA managers in charge of the four-day 2010 conference have been placed on leave. The conference has garnered an immense amount of Congressional attention because of its lavish costs, including $44-per-person breakfasts, a variety of receptions with expensive hors d’oeuvres, a clown and a mind reader.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing today to investigate the conference, and on Tuesday the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will hold another hearing. On Wednesday, the Senate will hold two hearings, one in the Environment and Public Works Committee and another in the Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government.