Weeks after the Trump administration abolished a rule requiring federal agencies to report conference spending, a breakdown of the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) multi-million-dollar conference tab illustrates the need to keep the measure in place.
The mammoth agency created after 9/11 to prevent another terrorist attack fails miserably to protect the southern border, to bust dangerous visa overstays, and to remove criminal illegal aliens — but it knows how to throw a party for employees and “stakeholders.” It also knows how to hide a chunk of the tab from taxpayers and the Trump administration is facilitating the process, laughably enough, asserting that agencies have tight internal controls.
That clearly isn’t the case, even under the reporting rules that were recently nixed by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). DHS held 911 conferences totaling $21.8 million during a recent two-year period, according to a federal audit released this month by the agency’s Inspector General. In fiscal year 2014 DHS spent $11.4 million on 433 conferences and $10.4 million on 478 conferences in 2015.
At the time, federal agencies were required to report all conferences that cost more than $100,000 each, but DHS kept two out of every three that cost north of $100,000 secret. The agency watchdog doesn’t provide the exact number, but reveals in its report that the total of unreported conferences was a whopping $3.5 million for the two years examined by investigators. In fiscal year 2014 the unreported conferences totaled $862,881 and in fiscal year 2015 they came to $2,822,561.
DHS committed a number of other violations during this period, the audit states. “The Department also did not always report all hosted conferences greater than $20,000 to OIG within 15 days after the end of the conference,” the report says. “In addition, the Department did not always enter actual conference cost data into the Conference Approval Tool timely or accurately, and in some instances DHS did not have appropriate documentation to support expenses.” For instance, the report reveals that expenses totaling $79,471 cannot be accounted for because the agency was unable to provide appropriate documentation. “Without adequate documentation, DHS cannot be assured that all conference spending is appropriate or in the best interest of the Government and taxpayers,” the report states.
Outrageous conference spending has been a systemic problem in government for a long time, which is why the Obama administration implemented rules to crack down on the waste. Apparently, the measures weren’t very effective but eliminating them doesn’t seem like a solution either. There’s no telling the abuses that a massive agency like DHS, with more than 240,000 employees and an annual budget of $40.6 billion, will commit without proper oversight. DHS has a well-established reputation for its outlandish conference spending.
A few years ago, the agency blew an eye-popping $20.3 million in just one year to host 1,883 conferences under supposedly stricter spending rules. This included a dozen events that each exceeded $100,000, including $196,308 for a San Francisco forum aimed at preventing terrorism as well as “securing and managing our borders” and an additional $130,941 for a separate San Francisco shindig so 39 senior agency officials could engage with “key influencers and decision makers” in the cybersecurity industry.
Other examples listed in the federal audit include $179,053 on the International Oil Spill Conference in Savannah, Georgia, which focused on environmental impacts of oil spills and $125,348 on a Washington D.C. event aimed at “maximizing the benefits of gender diversity.” The idea behind that conference was to promote gender equity through a group known as Women in Federal Law Enforcement (WIFLE), a nonprofit created by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the U.S. Treasury to address why women remain underrepresented in federal law enforcement.
A $110,993 “outreach” summit in Washington D.C. brought Customs and Border Patrol senior managers, transportation executives and foreign government partners together to discuss “securing and managing our borders” and a $108,617 Ft. Worth Texas conference provided a “platform for conveying information regarding relevant issues in immigration enforcement.” DHS also doled out $131,868 on the Afghanistan Pakistan Illicit Procurement Network Symposium in Tampa, Florida where discussions focused on preventing hostile nations and illicit procurement networks from illegally obtaining U.S. military products or sensitive technology that could be used against the U.S.