- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 21, 2013

Down go the temperatures, and away go the bureaucrats to the Caribbean, nonetheless.

A group of federal officials skipped chilly Washington this month for a taxpayer-funded trip to the Virgin Islands in the name of protecting the world’s coral reef.

The organizer, the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force, isn’t saying much about the total cost or reasons for the trip or why officials chose the St. Croix beachfront resort Buccaneer Hotel (made famous by an episode of TV’s “The Bachelor”) as their destination.

But life couldn’t have been too bad for the G-men and G-women at the swanky resort, which is surrounded by a lush green golf course and boasts rooms with rates that begin at $323 a night. “Gracious, elegant, legendary” is how the 17th-century resort bills itself.

Federal officials defend the trip by saying that on-scene experience about Caribbean coral reefs is important to the mission of conservation. They also emphasized that they managed to get a special government discount rate of $135 a night for the hotel, topped off with a $74 meal per diem.

But for fiscal watchdogs clamoring for reducing spending and the national debt, the trip stands as a powerful symbol of a government that has little sensitivity to appearances or the bottom line.

“Taxpayers expect accountability regardless of whether a particular meeting was held in a coral reef or in a Hyatt,” said Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, a fiscal watchdog group.

For jetting off to the Virgin Islands at a dubious time of year and making it difficult to monitor its costs, the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force wins the Golden Hammer, a weekly distinction from The Washington Times awarded for examples of wasteful or excessive spending.

With 11 agencies involved in funding and support for the coral reef task force, it can be difficult to track down just how much is being spent and by whom. Spending records are spread across multiple agencies, with no single record of just how much these meeting might be costing taxpayers.

An Interior Department representative said the task force meeting was held in conjunction with a meeting of the Caribbean Regional Planning Body, and many people participated in both. Travel to the coral reefs directly is necessary, the representative said, as they are “places where on-the-ground conservation activities are ongoing and local management issues can be effectively highlighted and assessed for progress to goal.”

Coral reefs are some of the most diverse habitats of the ocean, but they have been seriously harmed by pollution and climate change. The International Coral Reef Symposium, a multinational scientific conference, estimates that a quarter of the world’s coral reefs have been destroyed and half of all reefs could be lost within 20 years. In addition to biodiversity, coral reef tourism and fishing often bring millions of dollars in revenue to the economies of island nations and coastal countries.

The task force was established in 1998 by an executive order from President Clinton, though presidents and politicians on both sides of the aisle have supported similar endeavors.

With information and responsibilities spread across nearly a dozen federal agencies, getting a final tally of spending can be difficult. The Interior Department and the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lead the group. NOAA estimates it contributed about $21,000 to the meeting, spokesman Ben Sherman said.

In addition to the room rates and food per diems, the various departments were also responsible for providing airfare for attendees. A quick search of travel websites shows that flights from Washington to St. Croix, where the meeting was held, range from $500 to $1,000.

Mr. Schatz said governments often use existing resources and personnel to support such multiagency endeavors. But the decentralized nature means that often there is no single department that can easily track spending, no single congressional committee that can oversee it, no single body with responsibility to determine whether the group has accomplished its task.

“If taxpayers were more aware of why these things were happening or what the results were, there could be a better determination on whether the activity was worthwhile,” he said.

“Believe me, I’m not recommending Congress set up an interagency committee to look at this task force,” Mr. Schatz joked.

The main meeting of the task force was held in the Great Hall of the University of the Virgin Islands. There were speeches from the governors of the five U.S. island territories, updates on situations facing the islands, and time for public comment.

Attendees also participated in local outreach events to help educate the public and went on “site visits to regions of St. Croix that have seen recent coral reef conservation activities,” Mr. Sherman said.

The task force meets twice a year, once in February in Washington and once in the fall in one of the regions under U.S. control with coral reefs: American Samoa, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, Florida and Hawaii.

But facing budget cuts and congressionally mandated sequestration cuts, many agencies have been looking to trim spending. “In the private sector when companies are having financial problems they tend to cut back on travel,” Mr. Schatz said. “It can be equally efficient to use modern technology to have group discussions through Skype or other forms of technology that allow communication without being in the same room.”

The task force, however, faces particular problems in long-distance communication. “If you’re looking at the coral reef, it’s a little tougher to do that without seeing it in person,” Mr. Schatz said.

Federal agencies have been trying to rein in spending on meetings since a series of lavish, vacation-style conferences in Las Vegas held by the General Services Administration. The agency’s internal inspector general uncovered $6.7 million in meeting costs, including the $823,000 Vegas conference that included tens of thousands of dollars worth of food, alcohol and souvenirs. Several GSA officials were forced to step down, and White House officials reissued a presidential order directing agencies to cut unnecessary spending.

• Phillip Swarts can be reached at pswarts@washingtontimes.com.

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