- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 24, 2014

There’s more than one way to do Las Vegas, as half a dozen members of the D.C. Council have shown.

The cost to taxpayers to send half the council to the Global Retail Real Estate Convention in Las Vegas was close to $14,000 this year.

The annual convention has been a big draw for city officials for years as the District seeks to attract new businesses and investments. But the cost of the trip varied by council member, from just under $1,000 to almost $3,000, according to expense reports submitted by the council members and obtained by The Washington Times through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Muriel Bowser, Ward 4 Democrat and candidate for mayor, booked the priciest hotel room of any of the council members. She checked into the Trump International Hotel at a rate that topped out at $424 per night for two nights of her four-night stay. Ms. Bowser, head of the council’s economic development committee, submitted a bill to taxpayers that totaled $2,820 and included a $78 charge for “breakfast food.” She didn’t respond to questions about the trip.

Yvette M. Alexander, Ward 7 Democrat, spent the most city money on the trip. Total expenses, including her flight and four-night stay at the MGM Grand, were $2,919.

Anita Bonds, at-large Democrat, proved to be the thriftiest of the council members who attended the convention this year. She kept expenses at $968 with a two-night stay at Treasure Island Hotel and a red-eye flight home.

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Ms. Alexander defended the spending, saying the money comes out of allocations already made to council members’ budgets. She said that when council members attend the convention they bring a personal touch to interactions with potential retailers that city economic policy advisers might be missing.

“They know about the logistics of the development, but they don’t really have the intimate knowledge of the neighborhoods and the history,” she said. “And when the elected officials are there, it really means that we’re serious and everyone is on board.”

Of bringing home the biggest bill, Ms. Alexander blamed the cost on the fact the Billboard Music Awards were taking place at the same time as the convention and were driving up hotel and flight prices for those who didn’t make reservations well in advance.

For Ms. Bonds, who attended the convention for the second time, the trip was a way to promote specific neighborhoods in the District that are “in need of retail, like The Strand in Ward 7” and the Walter Reed site in Ward 4.

Expenses were all signed off by the council secretary. Only in one case — a $99 payment for an upgrade in airline seats by Ms. Alexander — was an item flagged for repayment by the council member.

The pilgrimage to Las Vegas for the convention has become an annual event since the administration of former Mayor Anthony A. Williams and has recorded some notable achievements. At the 2011 convention, Mayor Vincent C. Gray muscled Wal-Mart executives into what would be a commitment for five stores in the city instead of the four the retail giant had proposed.

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But a taxpayer-funded trip to Sin City is bound to raise eyebrows — especially in light of the spending scandal that emerged from the General Services Administration’s 2012 Las Vegas training conference.

By comparison to the $800,000 GSA event that featured clowns, a mind reader and a red-carpet party, the D.C. delegation was pretty tame. The expenses of other council members who attended — Vincent B. Orange, Kenyan McDuffie and Jack Evans — fell somewhere in between the $2,000-to-$3,000 range depending on their choice of hotel, length of stay and other expenses.

Mr. McDuffie, Ward 5 Democrat, had the most expensive air-travel costs, with a ticket there and back costing $1,023. Coupled with a three-night stay at the MGM Grand, the total cost to taxpayers was $2,388.

A spokeswoman for Mr. McDuffie said the Office of the Secretary was responsible for purchasing his ticket and noted that two other council members and Mr. Gray were on the same flight to Las Vegas. She said the council member hoped to court retailers to come to Ward 5.

Expenses in Mr. Orange’s $2,442 bill included $144 for a rental car during the convention. The car rental proved a cheaper option than the $300 cab fare that Mr. Evans racked up as he made his way from the Wynn to the convention center, where the event was held.

While Mr. Orange, at-large Democrat, booked a room at The Palazzo for $210 a night, a $50-per-night upgrade put his hotel bill up over $1,200. His expenses did not include the four extra days the council member remained in Las Vegas after the convention.

Mr. Evans, who has attended the convention for more than a decade, said he always stays at the Wynn and tries to book the same nonstop flight each year.

“Some years I get better rates than others,” he said, adding that he’s tried to lobby for the city to book a set of rooms together for a group rate rather than leaving attendees to book their own.

This time around, his stay at the Wynn was $295 a night, and the trip totaled $2,175 for the three-night stay.

Mr. Evans, Ward 2 Democrat and head of the council’s finance committee, laments that the trip seems to come with a heap of scrutiny, though he says the convention has been an important aspect of the District’s economic development over the years.

“We all work pretty hard out there,” Mr. Evans said. “People aren’t out gambling or slacking off that I know of.”

• Andrea Noble can be reached at anoble@washingtontimes.com.

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