Outrage over General Services Administration spending could chill New Orleans travel

April 30 2012 | Latest News

New Orleans could be impacted by the recent GSA conference overspending in Las Vegas

April 29, 2012

By Bruce Alpert, Times-Picayune

WASHINGTON -- Outrage over lavish spending at a 2010 General Services Administration conference in Las Vegas has produced rare bipartisanship on Capitol Hill, with the Republican-led House following the Democratic-controlled Senate last week in voting to cut conference spending by 20 percent. That legislation, and some calls to curtail federal government travel even more, is causing concern at the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, which pegs government meetings at roughly 9 percent of the $1 billion it says meetings and conventions generate for the city's economy.


Stephen Perry, the bureau's president and CEO, said no one is defending the excesses of the $823,000 the GSA spent for the Vegas convention. There are rules and procedures in place, he said, that should have prevented the no-bid contracts and extensive and expensive pre-event travel and lavish parties.

"It's frustrating for us that instead of taking steps to make sure that rules are being abided by that there's effort to curtail travel when it is one of the ways for government leaders to get outside of Washington and actually serve their constituents," Perry said.

The congressional effort to trim government meetings and conventions comes at a critical time for New Orleans. The city is hosting a three-day conference beginning May 13 by the Society of Government Meeting Planners consisting mainly of officials who plan government meetings.

There had been hope that the meeting, which will include workshops and exposure to New Orleans attractions, will bring more government conventions to the city -- though limits being imposed by Congress could frustrate that goal.

There is declining support in Congress for government meetings, even from those who represent communities that depend on conventions.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said New Orleans welcomes business and industry leaders who choose the city for meetings because of "all the tourist opportunities, food and culture that can't be found anywhere else in the country."

"But when it comes to government-sponsored travel, we owe an important responsibility to the taxpayer, and government agencies must be held accountable for their spending," Landrieu said.

Both the House and Senate passed their new restrictions on government meetings last week by voice votes with little controversy.

'The party's over'

It's not that government officials don't have alternatives, said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who offered the amendment reducing agency meeting budgets by 20 percent from 2010 levels and limiting most conferences to a $500,000 budget. His bill would allow conferences to rely more on private financing, as long as the financing is disclosed and steps are taken to avoid conflicts of interests.

"Congress has finally said the party's over when it comes to conference spending," Coburn said.

The House also passed similar language, adding it to a bill creating a single website where Americans can search for information on how government agencies, departments and other recipients spend federal tax dollars.

Speaker after speaker in the House made mention of the GSA Las Vegas conference that featured a clown, a mind reader and a rap video making fun of the excessive spending -- in this case $823,000 for a meeting of 300 people that included lavish food spreads and hotel rooms for friends and family of the event organizer, according to the GSA inspector general.

"In light of the GSA scandal, I think most Louisianians would agree that government waste of taxpayer dollars cannot be tolerated under any circumstances and must be eliminated," said Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson. "We can still have a vibrant tourism industry while simultaneously eliminating wasteful government spending."

N.O. represents a bargain

Government meetings in New Orleans cost less than in other venues and far less than private-sector events because the federal government has a much lower maximum reimbursement rate for food and hotels in the city than it does in other regions, Perry said.

"It's also popular with government meeting planners because in addition to the famous high-end restaurants we have many restaurants where you can get excellent meals for $8, $9 or $10 and meet that per diem," Perry said.

The same GSA Western Region that went high-roller in Las Vegas paid $655,000 for its 2008 meeting in New Orleans, and Perry said he knows of none of the excesses reported during the 2010 event.

Charles Sadler, the executive director and CEO of the Society of Government Meeting Planners who is now planning for the group's May conference in New Orleans, said the abuses uncovered at the GSA meeting in Las Vegas are "very disturbing." But he said it would be wrong for government to take a "knee-jerk approach and dramatically reduce or shut down government meetings."

Government conferences and meetings, he said, help government agencies perform better by exposing them to good practices by employees in other offices and allowing them to interact with individuals who rely on their services, Sadler said.