Another Federal Conference Scrutinized for Excessive Costs
A new report by the Department of Commerce on a 2012 National Institute of Standards and Technology conference raises more questions about federal agencies' conference spending. It's the latest in a string of reports detailing what investigators say is a failure to rein in costs.
It’s not the first time that a federal conference has been put under the microscope, and it may not be the last, either.
But the findings from this latest investigation could draw additional attention to conference costs associated with entertainment and lodging.
The 2012 National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) annual conference in Orlando, Florida, was the subject of a recent U.S. Department of Commerce inspector general’s report [PDF]. It found that organizers of the $1.1 million event failed to take adequate measures to reduce conference expenses, noting that the contracted event planner retained or spent $236,341 in sponsorship fees, commissions, and other fees rather than returning those funds to the government to reduce the cost of the conference.
Other findings from the survey:
“Avoidable costs”: The IG investigation found that NIST-MEP and its event planner incurred a number of “avoidable costs” that pushed up the $1.1 million price tag for the event—$710,000 of which was billed to NIST. For example, the report cited unnecessary concessions in the contract between the World Marriott Resort Center and the event planner, such as free rooms and golf green fees, and a $113,995 reception at the resort, which was free to guests and paid for by sponsors. The IG said that the contractor improperly “retained concessions and benefits for the May 2012 conference that could have been used to reduce the government’s conference cost.” The audit also found that NIST failed to properly process travel claims, looking out for waste.
Among the recommendations: The report outlines several recommendations for federal conferences: that contractors work within Federal Travel Regulation guidelines when choosing a location; that oversight of contractors be increased; that event sponsorship fees be used to help pay for the the conference, rather than entertainment; and that NIST-MEP not accept upgraded suites or other valuable items from contractors at future conferences. As for reimbursements, the report recommends that attendees who misused travel card spending privileges be evaluated for potential reprimands and that “the bureau should pursue reimbursement of overpayments and correctly reimburse underpaid attendees, wherever possible.” In a written response to the Office of Inspector General, the agency said it has corrected the $600 in underpayments and $1,600 in overpayments and taken other steps to address the issues raised in the report. “As we have discussed, we fully understand the report’s recommendations and have already conducted training and taken prompt actions to address many of these recommendations,” NIST-MEP’s acting director, Philip Singerman, wrote.
A call for change: In an interview with the Washington Times, Commerce Department Inspector General Todd Zinser said the findings show that the conference-spending issue affects numerous agencies. “It shows the Commerce Department was no different than some of these other agencies that sponsored these conferences and did not really think through the use of taxpayer money for this,” Zinser told the Times. “I think the day has come when these types of conferences have come to an end.” Singerman wrote to the IG that the management decisions on conference spending made by organizers “were based upon their best interpretation of current federal policies and regulations relevant at the time of the event.”
The ongoing scrutiny of federal conferences continues to create ripple effects for scientific conferences, defense conferences, and General Services Administration (GSA) events in particular. The current oversight began after members of Congress raised questions about a 2010 GSA training conference.
Members of Congress met in January to discuss ways to strengthen controls on conference spending.
(Editor’s note: This article has been corrected and clarified in multiple places.)