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Diane Dimond
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Your Tax Dollars Circling the Drain

Comment

What if your boss decided to reward you and your fellow workers with an all-expenses-paid getaway? Wouldn't that be great? You could stay in a nice hotel and spend some quality time networking with your colleagues, and in the evening you could enjoy cocktails and special entertainment and indulge in expensive dinners.

Think in these economic times your boss would spring for that? Yeah, not in a million years, right?

Well, if you pay federal income taxes, you've already helped foot the bill for just such a bash. Sorry, you weren't invited. This four-day event was arranged by the General Services Administration, and after learning the details, I think someone there ought to be arrested for misappropriation of funds — $822,000 of our funds!

This is another one of those moronic government moves that belongs in my "I-want-my-money-back" file.

First, you should know that that the GSA is the approved shopping arm of the U.S. government for big-ticket items like leasing or purchasing buildings and cars and supplying federal offices. The agency is supposed to know how to finagle a bargain.

With that in mind, let's go back to the year 2010. The brain trust at the GSA decides that its western regional conference should be a humdinger of a retreat for 300 of its employees. Thinking big, as is its custom, the GSA picks no less than Las Vegas as the destination location and the four-star M Resort Spa Casino as the venue. Event organizers would later tell investigators at the inspector general's office that they had been instructed by the regional administrator in charge to spare no expense to make the conference "over the top" — better than any other GSA convention ever.

GSA organizers took (are you sitting down?) six scouting trips to Vegas to prepare for the October 2010 festivities. Their travel and lodging totaled a whopping $147,000, and that was just the pre-planning phase! They then booked flights and hotel rooms for everyone and arranged tuxedo rentals for their big-wig bosses. Breakfasts at the resort hotel were negotiated at $44 each. Dinners cost $95 apiece, and oh, did I mention those amounts were multiplied by the 300 GSA employees in attendance?

But that's not all these civil servants got. Lucky participants received a commemorative coin set in a velvet presentation box to take home to remember the unforgettable retreat — costing us taxpaying suckers another $6,300. Their cocktail hours over the four-day retreat were made elegant by finger foods like $30,000 worth of jumbo shrimp ($4 apiece), 1,000 sushi rolls ($7 each) and mini Monte Cristo sandwiches ($5 a pop).

Why, it almost made the petit filet mignon in the beef Wellington bites — at just $4.75 each — seem like a bargain!

And after a hard day of networking and conference seminars, including one billed as a "team building exercise" during which employees worked together to build a bicycle (session cost: $75,000), they were entertained by clowns, a comedian and even a mind reader who was paid $3,200 but apparently failed to "see" the pending disaster down this boondoggle road and send out a warning to the powers that be.

We're learning now that, during the months-long run up to this conference, there were people within the agency who were warning that the event's budget was getting out of control. Somewhere along the line, their level-headed concerns were waved away. Those who expressed worry should be commended. Those who forged ahead with this fiasco should be held accountable.

About a year ago, the GSA's inspector general's office heard the rumblings of discontent and began to investigate the inner workings of this over-the-top conference. Just as its scathing final report was to be released came word that GSA Administrator Martha Johnson had fired her two top assistants. Four staffers who helped organize the conference were put on administrative leave. Then, Johnson resigned after acknowledging the excesses and admitting her agency had made a "significant misstep."

Gee, I wonder what took her so long to figure out that spending massive amounts of money on an annual conference while so many Americans were suffering economically is not such a good idea? Silly me. I had been hoping the days of the government spending $535 on hammers and $640 for toilet seats for the Pentagon were behind us.

So, am I being a cynic here? Am I the only one to conclude that if this was happening at the General Services Administration — the independent agency set up to watch Uncle Sam's deep pocket spending — it must be happening within other departments of government, too?

It is just so damn discouraging. After years of recession (or whatever the economists want to call it), if our own government doesn't realize the need to pinch pennies when many of the rest of us are just trying to make the bills, then what are we to think?

I'm waiting for a presidential candidate who promises to do everything possible to save my hard-earned tax dollars and to seek criminal penalties against those government workers who flagrantly waste money.

And, if I can't get my taxpayer money back for this GSA boondoggle, then how about giving me one of those commemorative coins? Or the bicycle. Who got the bicycle?

Visit Diane Dimond's official website at www.dianedimond.com for investigative reporting, polls and more. To find out more about Diane Dimond and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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