- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Just weeks after President Obama expressed outrage in 2012 over lavish conference spending by federal employees, the government laid out more than $1.1 million for another gathering in Florida that involved free food, alcohol and live entertainment.

The 2012 National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Manufacturing Extension Partnership conference in Orlando, Fla., in May 2012, which the Commerce Department inspector general detailed in a new report last month, was even more expensive than the $823,000 conference in Las Vegas that had sparked the president’s ire.

Budget watchdogs said the report shows wasteful conferences weren’t limited to just the big-name agencies that have already been identified, such as the IRS, the Veterans Affairs Department and the General Services Administration, whose 2010 conference in Las Vegas, including a booze-filled red carpet experience complete with a mind reader, magician and clowns, ignited new scrutiny and rules changes.

NIST, an agency within the Commerce Department, wasn’t the only federal agency to help pay for the conference, but its share of the tab topped more than $700,000, auditors found.

At no cost to attendees, the conference included a $113,995 reception at the World Marriott Center Resort with live music, alcohol and food, as well as free transportation to and from Walt Disney World, according to the audit, which Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, requested. NIST officials said Wednesday no taxpayer money was used in the reception.

“It shows the Commerce Department was no different than some of these other agencies that sponsored these conferences and did not really think through the use of taxpayer money for this,” Inspector General Todd J. Zinser said in a phone interview last week. “I think the day has come when these types of conferences have come to an end.”

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The auditor also found that the private event planner kept or spent nearly a quarter-million dollars in conference sponsorship fees, while holding onto Marriott benefits like golf green fees, free rooms and travel points that could have been used to help cut conference costs for the government.

In addition, NIST agreed to higher than normal room rates for government employees, essentially subsidizing rates for private-sector attendees.

NIST officials declined to comment on the findings, pointing to a written response attached to the IG report that promises corrective action plans.

“Decisions made at the time of the 2012 conference by NIST-MEP senior management were based upon their best interpretation of current federal policies and regulations relevant at the time of the event,” Phillip Singerman, a NIST official, wrote in a memo to the IG’s office.

After the IG’s report found numerous questionable travel card expenditures at the conference, Mr. Singerman said the agency reviewed about 200 charges and found about 10 percent contained errors totaling $1,600 in overcharges and $600 in underpayments.

Leslie Paige, spokeswoman for Citizens Against Government Waste, said the findings put to rest the idea that runaway conference spending was the work of a few rogue officials at one or two government agencies.

“This fits into the same category of conference excesses we’ve seen in the past,” Ms. Paige said. “Every time we see one of these reports, it makes us skeptical that anything has changed.”

But Ms. Paige said it’s especially surprising that the NIST conference would include free alcohol and entertainment just weeks after the GSA conference scandal occurred.

Erupting in April 2012, the GSA scandal prompted scrutiny of other agency conferences and forced government agencies to pull back on travel spending, with some arguing that officials have been hard pressed to find the resources to pay for legitimate gatherings.

Several top GSA officials were forced out in the wake of the conference scandal. Congress held hearings.

David Axelrod, a top adviser to Mr. Obama, told “Meet the Press” in April 2012 that Mr. Obama was “apoplectic” about reports of the wasteful GSA conference.

• Jim McElhatton can be reached at jmcelhatton@washingtontimes.com.

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