Rich Lowry: Fast times at the GSA

BY RICH LOWRY Published: April 18, 2012

Mitt Romney says he likes to fire people. If elected, can the General Services Administration be his first target?

A few (but not enough) heads have already rolled at the agency that threw itself an infamous Las Vegas conference that could have been planned by former Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski before he went to jail. The GSA couldn't outdo Kozlowski, who threw his wife a birthday party on an Italian island with an ice sculpture of Michelangelo's “David” that urinated vodka and billed his company for half the cost. But it undertook its conference planning with the same sense of frugality and good taste.

Charged with supporting federal operations, the GSA turns out to be a cynical wastrel. Before the conference, word came down from on high that it should be “over the top” — in other words, in the spirit of an over-the-top era of stimulus, when spending more is always assumed to be better. The GSA spent $6,325 on commemorative coins to reward its employees, fittingly enough, for their work on Recovery Act projects. It's a wonder that Keynesians aren't defending the $820,000 conference as a jobs creator, a notion that wouldn't be any more absurd than the case they make for “shovel-ready” projects and green energy.

The event was the biennial Western Regions Conference of the Public Buildings Service of the GSA, and if that doesn't sound like a good time, you've never partied with the GSA. A great deal of thought was put into how to sidestep and exploit every rule in the interest of gouging the government.

According to an inspector general report, the GSA undertook two “scouting trips,” five off-site planning meetings and a “dry run” for the conference. Most of this painstaking preparation took place at the four-star M Resort Spa Casino outside Vegas (“the floor-to-ceiling windows offer an incredible view from every room”), where the 300 GSA employees gathered for the conference itself. All told, travel and catering costs for planning alone ran $136,000.

Then, on to the main event: more food. For the Petit Beef Wellington and Mini Monte Cristo Sandwiches at the “networking reception,” for the Boursin Scalloped Potato with Barolo Wine Braised Short Ribs at the party prior to the closing dinner, for all the breakfast buffets and in-room parties, the GSA paid $146,000. Since government rules allow for free food at award ceremonies, the GSA was sure to give out awards liberally, including at a $2,700 invitation-only concluding party in a loft suite.

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