Last week was full of bad news. President Barack Obama created a firestorm with controversial comments about the role of the Supreme Court, interpreted by some as an attempt to intimidate the Court into allowing the health care reform law to stand. At the end of the week March job numbers and unemployment numbers were released showing only bad news. Job creation was an anemic 120,000, and so many people became discouraged over the poor job climate and dropped out of the job market that it caused the unemployment rate to drop by one-tenth of a percent to 8.2 percent. Normally, it is a good sign when unemployment drops, but not this time.
And, a huge scandal erupted following the news that an office of the General Services Administration (GSA), the Public Buildings Service, which is known as the "landlord" for the federal government, is now being investigated for a 2010 Las Vegas conference that cost taxpayers a cool $820,000 to $840,000.
The details of the outing reveal an orgy of spending for the benefit of the public servants who attended. The conference provided such lavish niceties as clown and mind-reader entertainment, and more than $146,000 worth of food and drinks, including $44-a-person breakfasts; $19-a-person "artisanal cheese" displays; $16-per-person pasta stations; and shrimp costing $4 each. Attendees also received $3,700 worth of shirts, $6,300 worth of commemorative coins and $1,800 worth of special vests. As you might imagine, such an extravagant affair took a lot of planning, more than $130,000 worth.
A couple of videos from the event have surfaced, showing a Buildings Service employee performing in a music video in which the employee raps: "Donate my vacation, love to the nation, I'll never be under OIG investigation." Other highlights show public employees arrogantly flaunting the wasting of the public’s money.
No doubt President Barack Obama was terribly embarrassed by this revelation, having only a year before this outrageous misuse of public funds made strong statements against corporations who received federal bailouts living it up at taxpayer expense. “You can't go take a trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayer's dime," he scolded. So, it had to hurt to find his own Executive Branch employees acting with the same disregard for taxpayer funds as the corporations that got bailouts.
However, the administration hastened to correctly point out that the start of this problem predates Mr. Obama’s presidency. In 2004 the Buildings Service spent $93,000 on the conference, about 11 percent of the 2010 total. From that point on, the bill got bigger and bigger as the conference moved around the country, totaling $323,855 in 2006, $655,025 in 2008, and then the 2010 near-million-dollar Vegas lollapalooza.
Obviously, the Bush and Obama administrations weren’t paying much attention to how the public’s money was being handled. And the Inspector General Office’s report last week indicates the Obama administration knew about the trip at least in May of 2010, five months before the conference took place, and did nothing about it.
The gross misuse of public funds by the Buildings Service at its biennial conference isn’t the end of the story for this agency, however. The commissioner’s budget has been rising since 2009, the year Commissioner Robert Peck was appointed. In fiscal 2009, his budget was $3.25 million, only slightly higher than two years earlier. But in 2010 the budget jumped to $6.94 million, and jumped again in 2011 to $9.16 million.
The man at the center of the scandal is Jeffrey E. Neely, the person who made sure that the conference was “over the top,” compared to previous bashes. He initially approved a $300,000 budget for the 2010 conference, but later nearly tripled the budget to about $823,000. Mr. Neely attended five of the eight agency “dry run” meetings held in advance of the conference to be sure the proposed venue would be able to deliver a show to end all shows for government workers, according to information from the GSA Office of Inspector General.
Commissioner Peck was fired in the wake of the scandal, GSA Administrator Martha Johnson resigned, and several employees have been placed on leave pending investigation, following the IG report. Apparently, none of those involved has tried to pay the taxpayers back for their outrageous spending abuses.
The evidence that our federal government is overgrown, arrogant and abusive of the citizenry continues to mount up. And yet even the suggestion that spending needs to be cut and government needs to be downsized and brought under control elicits howls of protest from liberals, statists and those on the receiving end of taxpayer money being freely doled out for all manner of inappropriate things.
Over-indulgences like this tawdry Las Vegas episode are clearly out of bounds, but apparently they are not all that unusual, and that sort of behavior didn’t originate under Barack Obama, or George Bush. But Barack Obama is the president now, and it will be instructive to see if he has the courage and the regard for the people of the United States to take quick steps to do something meaningful about government malfeasance like this.