McCaskill seeks to curb extravagant spending at federal conferences

Forgive Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri if she’s leery of the General Services Administration’s ability to police itself.

As the Democratic chairwoman of a Senate contracting oversight panel, McCaskill sounded alarms about GSA’s spending even before it became mired in a scandal over an extravagant conference in Las Vegas that cost taxpayers nearly $1 million.

She plans to introduce legislation within a week that would tighten spending controls at the GSA and other Cabinet-level agencies.

All conferences and events costing more than $200,000 would need approval by upper-level management; annual reports about them would be sent to Congress; and employees under investigation or found to have been involved in waste, fraud or abuse of tax dollars would be denied bonuses.

“I see it with contracting all the time,” said McCaskill. “You look at the contracting that went on in Iraq and Afghanistan, and goes on in Homeland Security. It is stunning there has not been more of an outcry. This one captures everyone’s imagination because it’s so easy to visualize. It’s almost absurd.”

McCaskill first questioned GSA a year ago over its decision to award a four-month contract worth nearly $250,000 to a Kansas City public relations company to help the agency explain a pollution problem at its federal complex in the region.

In a subsequent investigation, the GSA inspector general said that the agency should recoup some of the money.

The airfare costs alone for the 2010 Las Vegas conference totaled $147,000. GSA Inspector General Brian Miller has said the conference could have involved bribes and kickbacks and has asked the Justice Department to begin its own investigation.

The House has held two days of hearings by two committees this week, and the Senate will take the first of its swings today.

The testimony of GSA officials ranged from Jeff Neely, who organized the conference and invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, to Robert Peck, the former GSA Public Buildings Service commissioner and Neely’s supervisor, who approved his subsequent bonus and was fired when the scandal emerged.

McCaskill also said that she was “not completely shocked” that Neely received a bonus after GSA officials had become aware of the conference’s extravagance. McCaskill said that the GSA official who approved the private public relations contract for the agency’s Kansas City office received one as well.

Peck attended the conference, but he said in his House testimony Tuesday that though he was not involved in its planning or approval, “they took place on my watch. I am not here to shirk that responsibility. I am deeply disappointed by what the IG reported. The taxpayers deserve better than this.”