Austerity comes in different forms, or at least it does in America.
At the centre of the furore is a four-day conference GSA hosted for 300 of its staff at a luxury Las Vegas hotel (left). Right: Jeffrey Neely, a GSA official, went on a 17-day trip paid for by the GSA to Hawaii, Guam and Saipan on which the official took his wife
While everyday Americans are forced to contend with sky high unemployment and a moribund economy, one US government department has found the austerity diet altogether more fattening.
The General Services Administration – the agency charged with maintaining buildings and buying supplies for the US government – is facing a backlash that is gripping the country.
As Congress prepares to face the headache of spending reductions and the expiry of tax cuts early next year, politicians are letting out their frustrations on the GSA and its luxurious habits.
At the centre of the furore is a four-day conference GSA hosted for 300 of its staff at a luxury Las Vegas hotel. Employees were allegedly entertained by clowns, comics and mind-readers and fed fine food in a blow-out event that cost almost $1m (£623,000).
The revelations – revealed in a report by a US watchdog tasked with controlling government spending and involving business suppliers that could also come under the spotlight – have provoked apoplexy. “The party is over,” thundered California Senator Barbara Boxer at one of four hearings Congress held this week into the GSA’s spending.
“Every time we turned over a stone we found 50 more with all kinds of things crawling out,” Brian Miller, the head of the watchdog, told Congress. The excess at the M Resort Spa Casino on the outskirts of Las Vegas is politically explosive just six months before an election in which the size and role of government will be a key dividing line between Democrats and Republicans.
Mitt Romney, the Republican who is favourite to take on President Barack Obama in November’s election, said that the administration should be embarrassed by the spending spree. President Obama is “outraged by the excessive spending, questionable dealings with contractors and disregard for taxpayer dollars”, Jacob Lew, The White House chief of staff, hit back.
But for the Democrats and Republicans quizzing GSA officials in hearings this week, there was a unity of bewilderement and outrage. The report even disclosed that the GSA had allegedly ignored its own rule that breakfasts on trips should not come to more than $12. The organisation had plumped for a $44 menu.
The report said that the cost of light refreshments and breakfasts over the four days, which included 400 "Mini Monte Cristo Sandwiches" came in at $79, 511. At the conference dinners, the extravagance was mocked by GSA employees in skits and sketches.
It was enough to prompt Jeff Denham, the Republican chair of the House Transportation Committee, to declare that it is “a dark day for the US government”.
The watchdog has recommended a criminal investigation into the GSA after more than 115 iPods that were designed for an employee-reward programme went missing. Amid the competitive handwringing by politicians, Jeffrey Neely, the GSA official who organised the conference, was silent.
Mr Neely, who has been put on leave from the GSA, invoked his fifth amendment right not to incriminate himself at a hearing and declined to show up for a second hearing.
That was the same day that pictures emerged of Mr Neely soaking in a hot-tub in Las Vegas on one of six reconnaissance trips he and other GSA officials took to the hotel before the conference. Those trips, which included what was described as a “dry run” in the middle of October 2010, cost more than $135,000.
The controversy has already cost the head of the GSA, Martha Johnson, her job, while at least 10 officials are on administrative leave. Congressional anger was stoked further after it emerged that Mr Neely and others went on a 17-day trip paid for by the GSA to Hawaii, Guam and Saipan on which the official took his wife.