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GSA acting chief outlines more steps to halt wasteful spending

From Dana Bash, CNN Senior Congressional Correspondent
April 10, 2012 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • An employee awards program cited for overspending is halted
  • "Indefensible" violations must not happen again, the acting GSA chief says
  • The controversy involves a 2010 Las Vegas conference that cost more than $800,000
  • The General Services Administration administrator resigned over the controversy

Washington (CNN) -- The General Services Administration has suspended an employee award program cited by congressional investigators for exceeding spending limits, the acting head of the agency said Tuesday.

In a video obtained by CNN, Acting Administrator Dan Tangherlini said halting the Hats Off Store that provided employee awards was one step in an effort to prevent the kind of "indefensible" wasteful spending involving a 2010 Las Vegas conference of GSA workers from happening again.

He said the misdeeds surrounding the 2010 conference included violations of travel rules, acquisition rules and good conduct, and also violated "rules of common sense" and the spirit of public service, as well as the public trust placed in the GSA.

Reports of the lavish conference have prompted taxpayer outrage, embarrassed the administration and put a spotlight on wasteful spending by the GSA, which acts as a real estate agency for the federal government.

An inspector general's report issued last week that detailed the excesses of the $820,000 conference brought the resignation of GSA chief Martha Johnson. In addition, congressional investigators are accusing the GSA of violating its employee gift limit with rewards of iPods, digital cameras and other electronics.

On Monday, the GSA announced that another government official was placed on administrative leave in the continuing fallout over the controversy.

David Foley, a deputy commissioner of the Public Buildings Service in the GSA, was identified by a House oversight panel as the official seen in video footage from the conference appearing to make light of congressional oversight.

According to an administration source who spoke on condition of not being identified, Foley became the eighth member of the GSA staff to be fired, placed on leave or otherwise removed from their job because of the controversy.

Monday's announcement by GSA spokesman Adam Elkington came after Monday's release of additional video footage involving the 2010 Western Regions Conference, this time showing government workers mocking a clean energy campaign pushed by President Barack Obama.

The video clip, made available by a Republican-led House oversight committee, shows GSA workers promoting the "go green" campaign, singing along to a gospel-style tune.

One line of the song says "POTUS wants a press event, a project he can show," while a worker holds up a portrait of Obama. POTUS stands for "president of the United States."

The workers' video was submitted for an awards competition at the 2010 conference, and accompanying footage of the awards ceremony shows a GSA official saying the video included any workers who were in the office on the day it was made.

With the agency coming under fire, an Obama administration source told CNN that the budget for the biennial conference ballooned during the Bush administration, growing from just under $94,000 for the 2004 event in Portland, Oregon, to just over $655,000 by the 2008 confab in New Orleans. By comparison, the source said, the tab for the 2010 conference was only 28% higher than 2008.

But a spokeswoman for the Republican-led House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has scheduled a hearing on the GSA for Monday, dismissed the argument.

"It's certainly important to understand whether increased costs in past years were used for real work and offset elsewhere or if increases were attributable to the kind of lavish spending that occurred in 2010 on parties, clowns, mind readers, commemorative coins and music videos done on official time," committee spokeswoman Becca Watkins said.

However, she added, "These statistics have been pushed by anonymous voices that have so far refused to provide critical details and context in the midst of their efforts to blame the Bush administration for abuses that occurred in 2010."

Watkins said the committee, led by California Rep. Darrell Issa, "has requested that GSA deliver information about previous conferences, including their cost and the number of individuals who attended."

On Friday, Republican investigators for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee said the GSA's Public Buildings Service developed an employee incentive program dating back several years known as the Hats Off Store that spent nearly $500,000 on gifts -- from iPods to GPS devices -- that vastly exceeded its $99-per-gift limit.

The investigators also said that accounting for the gifts, as well as the justification for giving them, was lacking or inconsistent, according to a statement released by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-California, chairman of the Subcommittee on Economic Development, and Rep. John Mica, R-Florida, chairman of the Transportation Committee.

While the investigation found the GSA's massive spending began in 2007 under the Bush administration and continued under the current leadership, Republican representatives leading the investigation have hammered Obama over the allegations.

Meanwhile, Issa has accused the White House of sitting on the inspector general's findings about the GSA for 11 months. The administration has dismissed Issa's claims, saying the investigation followed proper procedures.

Issa and Mica plan congressional hearings on the issue next week. Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, the chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, says she also will hold hearings on the GSA findings next week.

CNN's Tom Cohen contributed to this report.

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