Senate OKs conference spending reforms

April 24, 2012 at 7:11 PM
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WASHINGTON, April 24 (UPI) -- The U.S. Senate Tuesday approved reforms in federal spending on conferences such as the one at the center of a General Services Administration Las Vegas junket.

"Congress has finally said 'the party's over' when it comes to conference spending," Roll Call quoted Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., as saying after the measure passed on a voice vote. "We have seen scandal after scandal because Congress has failed to do oversight.

"I'm pleased my colleagues took this common sense step to limit conference spending and require greater transparency and accountability. I'm hopeful some version of this amendment will be accepted in the House of Representatives on this bill or another bill in the near future."

One of the reforms, pushed by Coburn, imposes a $500,000 cap on spending for a single conference and requires expenses to be posted online, Politico reported.

The amendment would require event organizers to provide an itemization of expenditures for taxpayer-funded travel and costs associated with selecting a conference site. Organizers would also be required to provide a cost-benefit analysis of holding a conference in person, rather than conducting business by teleconference, Politico said.

The GSA inspector general told federal prosecutors an outside event coordinator -- Michael W. Jahn, managing partner of Location Solvers -- violated ethics laws in planning the Las Vegas conference, and investigators were looking into whether Jahn violated bribery laws as well, giving gifts to GSA employees above the government's $20 limit, government sources told The Washington Post.

Government sources, e-mails and transcripts of interviews conducted by the inspector general's office indicated the gifts included flowers, concert tickets and free hotel rooms, the Post reported Monday.

Location Solvers, based in Washington, was hired by the GSA in 2010 to select 14 hotels as venues for conferences and other agency functions, including the M Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, where the Public Buildings Service hosted a four-day meeting in 2010 investigated by Miller's office.

The 2010 Western Regions conference, presented as a team-building meeting for 300 employees, featured private parties, a mind-reader, a talent show, extravagant food spreads and other entertainment -- and cost U.S. taxpayers $823,000. Location Solvers was one of many vendors whose services weren't competitively bid as required.

Government sources indicated among Jahn's other gifts to GSA staff were tickets to a Cher concert at Caesars Palace, which started at $95 and went to $250. Jahn arranged room discounts for a GSA event planner at another Las Vegas hotel and organized a discounted birthday party there for the woman's daughter.

"An inappropriate relationship with a hotel would be to go to the hotel and ask for favors that benefit the individuals personally," GSA Inspector General Brian Miller said during congressional hearings last week. "It's inappropriate to negotiate with vendors for personal benefits. That would be -- you're not allowed to use your office for personal gain."

The scandal prompted GSA Administrator Martha Johnson's resignation and the firing of her two top deputies. In addition, five regional commissioners were placed on administrative leave pending further disciplinary action.

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