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Vegas spending spree prompts resignation at federal agency

By Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times –

WASHINGTON — Remember the furor over $16 muffins?

That’s nothing compared to the $100-plus-per-person reception by the government’s procurement agency. The 2010 event featured 400 pieces of $4.75 “Petit Beef Wellington,” 400 “Mini Monte Cristo Sandwiches” at $5 each and 1,000 sushi rolls for $7 apiece, as well as other “excessive and wasteful” spending at a U.S. General Services Administration conference in Las Vegas.

The $822,000 cost of the conference, attended by about 300 employees, led Monday to the resignation of GSA Administrator Martha Johnson, along with the dismissal of two of her deputies — while prompting outrage on Capitol Hill.

In a letter to the GSA, Johnson said, “I feel I must step aside as administrator so that the agency can move forward at this time with a fresh leadership team.”

A stinging report by the agency’s inspector general assailed GSA officials for hosting parties in their rooms at M Resort Spa Casino — catered at taxpayer expense — using public funds for tuxedo rentals and spending money in a way that is “incompatible with its obligation to be a responsible steward of the public’s money.”

“As the agency Congress has entrusted with developing the rules followed by other federal agencies for conferences, GSA has a special responsibility to set an example, and that did not occur here,” the inspector general’s report says.

Total cost of catered food and beverages: $146,527.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, was especially outraged by the expenditure of $6,325 on commemorative coins that were given to GSA employees to recognize their work on the economic stimulus.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the panel’s top Democrat, said the report reveals a “gross abuse of taxpayer dollars and a breach of public trust.”

A GSA spokesman said the agency was “appalled” by the inspector general’s findings and promised to consider further disciplinary action and to implement reforms.

“The General Services Administration has made eliminating excessive spending and promoting efficiency one of its top priorities and is taking steps to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again,” the agency said in a statement.

About those pricey muffins: The Justice Department inspector general set off a public furor last year with a report on excessive costs at department conferences, including muffins that supposedly cost $16 each. The inspector general later revised its report to acknowledge that the $16 included more than muffins — it also covered fruit, coffee and juice, plus tax and tip. Lawmakers remained unhappy over other DOJ expenses, however — such as $32 per person for Cracker Jacks and other snacks, and $600,000 for event planners.

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