A new report released Thursday says the Department of Interior is not tracking the money it spends on conferences, and is failing to report conference costs publicly, a violation of the Obama administration's own policy.
The department's Office of Inspector General's report noted that the White House Office of Management and Budget has set out rules for conference spending, but said the Department of Interior isn't following them at all.
Sally Jewell runs the Department of Interior, which has no idea how much it's spending on conferences. (AP Photo/Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Star-Telegram)
"We found that DOI provides OMB and the public with estimated expenses rather than actual costs because actual conference expenditures are not tracked," it said. "As a result, DOI cannot effectively determine if conference or travel expenses have been reduced and, thus, if it has met OMB's policy guidance to control costs."
In 2011, OMB required federal agencies to ensure a senior-level person reviewed and approved all conferences with expenses above $100,000, and prohibited spending on $500,000 for any single conference. Details on all conferences above $100,000 must be reported publicly.
The OIG warned in 2012 that the Department of Interior was not prepared to track this spending, something that is still true today.
"We found that DOI was inadequately prepared to accurately track and monitor its conferences and related expenses as required by public law and OMB policy guidance," it said.
The report made recommendations about how the department can fix the problem, and Jessica Kershaw, a spokeswoman for the department, said Friday that officials are taking the OIG report's recommendations on board for the next fiscal year.
"DOI has a process in place to ensure the scrutiny of conference activities and costs and has worked closely with the OIG to seek advice and input on the process," she said. "The Department has reviewed the report and its recommendations. Interior has concluded that the recommendations are reasonable and will work to address them for the next fiscal year."
Conference spending has become a big issue over the last few years, after it was discovered that the General Services Administration spent more than $800,000 on a Las Vegas conference that members of both parties said was wasteful. That was followed by news that other agencies, including the IRS, were also wasting money on lavish meetings.
In the case of the Department of Interior, the OIG sampled 10 conferences, half of which cost more than $100,000. The report said the actual costs of these meetings in some cases came in lower than the initial estimates, although others ended up being more expensive.
Either way, the department's Office of Financial Management wasn't tracking how much they really cost, even though the name of that office would seem to imply that is its job.
Instead, that office has previously told OIG that "the additional effort required to gather and report actual conference costs is not merited because the burden of tracking costs at an individual conference level outweighs the benefits."
And while exact costs are not tracked, the Office of Financial Management was about to boast about conference savings over the last two years.
"We found that [the office] planned to report that it had saved $17 million in travel and $2 million in conference costs between FYs 2012 and 2013," OIG said. "When we asked for the documentation to support this claim, PFM officials told us that those savings were based on estimated expenditures for approved conferences, not on actual expenditures."