Millions spent on security retreats

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Department of Homeland Security officials spent tens of millions of dollars to attend seminars and retreats including a FEMA meeting in Hawaii, an immigration conference in Singapore and an underwater tunnel protection gathering in London, just to name a few.

The detailed expenses are from an inspector general review requested by the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, who was concerned about the department and its spending practices.

The review said $110 million was spent from 2005 through 2007 for such meetings, including $50 million for salary expenses for more than 8,000 employees who attended the conferences.

“With no one keeping track of conference spending at DHS, this $100 million binge is unacceptable,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi Democrat. “DHS has a mission to protect the homeland, and to do that, legitimate travel is clearly appropriate.”

The report, which was released Thursday evening, found there are no spending limits for the Homeland Security Department set by Congress or by internal regulation or agency policy, to determine how much can be spent to attend conferences.

The Coast Guard was the biggest spender at more than $30 million in a two-year period, followed by Immigration and Custom Enforcement, which spent more than $20 million in three years.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency spent nearly $18 million in a two-year period, including a May 2007 gathering at the Marriott on Waikiki Beach, which cost $176,094.

“What troubles me is extravagant spending when we need these funds to rebuild the Gulf Coast and strengthen border security,” Mr. Thompson said.

The London conference on recent developments in underwater tunnel security cost $100,000, and the IG reports only three participants attended the three-day event in June 2007 from the office of the Science and Technology Directorate.

The report also found that the department had a “general inability” to produce precise or consistent information, which gave “little assurance that all conferences and costs were accounted for properly.”

“DHS officials said there is no reason to track conference expenditures because there are no spending restrictions,” the report said.

Another official told the IG that the only benefit to tracking costs is so they can report it to Congress.

The department has “a fiduciary and strategic responsibility for establishing and maintaining internal controls to achieve effective and efficient operations and reliable financial reporting.”

The IG also found discrepancies in reports to Congress it said were “unintentional.” For example, the IG found that $2 million more was spent in 2005 than initially reported.

It was reported that 13 FEMA employees attended the Hawaii conference, but the IG found that 32 employees attended. The widest discrepancy came from a Coast Guard Aids to Navigation conference in Everett, Wash. The agency reported 22 attendees, but the IG put the number at 175. The total cost for the conference was listed at less than $23,000.

The IG made a dozen recommendations including new reporting and methodology procedures as well as cost-benefit analyses, with which the department concurred. It also recommended that the undersecretary for management assume oversight responsibility of such conferences in the future.

“It is encouraging to see that DHS has agreed to address all of the IG’s findings, and we will convene oversight hearings next year to hold DHS accountable for instituting tighter controls on conference spending,” Mr. Thompson said.

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