An Inspector General report, covering more than $21 million in conference spending by the Department of Energy, raised concerns of “negative public perceptions” caused by social events. The report covers a period after federal agencies were mandated to cut travel spending by 30 percent.
Despite federal agencies making cuts in conference and travel spending in recent years, some sectors of the government are still having trouble avoiding watchdogs’ peering eyes.
The latest department that’s being targeted? The Department of Energy. An Inspector General report released earlier this month [PDF] highlights $21 million in department spending on conferences costing more than $20,000.
The report found that the department had made progress on reducing conference spending, but emphasized that “more can be done to control cost and ensure that funds are spent appropriately.” It also noted that many of the conferences had issues with documentation, cost comparisons, the use of government facilities, and annual report requirements.
Our review also identified conference information regarding social events that, in our view, could lead to negative public perceptions.
But more troubling for those keeping an eye on federal conference spending—and something that conservative-leaning media outlets like The Washington Times have latched on to—was the entertainment aspects of some of the events, which included a casino night, golf tournaments, a Super Bowl party, and dinners at venues such as the NASCAR Hall of Fame and a cruise boat.
“Our review also identified conference information regarding social events that, in our view, could lead to negative public perceptions,” the report stated. “Existing guidance notes that participation in any associated social events should be limited and restrained to the greatest degree practicable to avoid the appearance of impropriety. Despite this admonition, we found that attendance at some conferences included associated social events.”
The report was also critical of events that weren’t held at government facilities, but instead at nearby hotels, adding costs of tens of thousands of dollars to each event.
The Inspector General reviewed 329 events held between April 2013 and September 2014, a time frame that fell after the Obama administration had implemented new conference and travel spending rules for federal agencies. Since the inspection, however, the Inspector General said that corrective actions have been taken on many of the problems identified.
The report comes after a recent loosening of conference spending standards by the Office of Management and Budget, allowing for more flexibility in “mission-critical” situations.