View from Sheraton Hotel and Marina on Harbor Island
Did taxpayers get a raw deal at a high-dollar pipeline conference run by the ever-controversial U.S. Transportation and Security Administration — infamous for airport frisking gropes and other mishaps — at a bayside San Diego hotel with a view?
So suggests an April 25 audit by the U.S. Homeland Security Department's office of Inspector General regarding TSA's “Pipeline Security Forum” held in the fall of 2012 at the Sheraton Hotel and Marina on Harbor Island.
“The 2012 Forum is a two day event that enhances government and industry pipeline security domain awareness and provides opportunities for discussion of major pipeline security issues, both domestic and international,” according to a website write-up of the conference.
“TSA is anticipating a large turnout for the 2012 Forum, so please register early to express your interest in attending the event. Priority registration will be given to employees of pipeline systems and government agencies whose job duties entail pipeline security responsibilities.”
But pipeline protection wasn't the only item on the San Diego agenda, the federal conference promoters noted.
“While the weather in San Diego is usually referred to as having 'abundant sunshine,' that is not the only great aspect of this area!
“Nestled at the edge of spectacular San Diego Bay, the Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina enjoys panoramic views of the bay and the city skyline yet is just 10 minutes from renowned attractions including the San Diego Zoo, Old Town and Balboa Park.”
Judging by the online pitch, conferees were expected to be in full buying, dining, and partying mode. “The Gaslamp District offers an abundance of shopping, restaurants, and nightlife,” it said. “Old Town San Diego is filled with unique shopping, restaurants, and experiences.”
The participants, including many government employees on expense accounts, may have had fun, dropped a few more taxpayer dollars into the pockets of inn-keepers and restaurateurs, and even learned something about pipelines, but auditors took a dour view of how the event and its extra-curricular goings-on had been set up.
They questioned whether an unidentified consultant retained by the TSA to make arrangements here (who got a fat commission for the lodgings) had complied with government regulations designed to reduce the financial hit of such events to the federal budget.
“Specifically, TSA did not require its external conference planner to maximize the use of Government-owned facilities for its FY 2013 International Pipeline Security Forum in San Diego, California.
“TSA's contract required the external conference planner to perform a cost comparison of at least three venues so TSA could select the venue with the lowest costs.
“However, TSA did not provide documentation to support that the conference planner considered Government-owned facilities.
“Furthermore, the contract between TSA and the venue used for this conference allowed the external event planner to collect a 10 percent commission on hotel rooms booked in connection with the conference.”
The ultimate damage to the taxpayers' pocketbook wasn't on the scale of a NASSCO Navy ship contract or a General Atomics Predator drone program, but these things add up, the audit suggests, especially since the pipeline party is representative of bigger government shindigs.
“TSA did not include $33,520 in conference planning costs already incurred when it requested DHS approval for its FY 2013 International Pipeline Security Forum in San Diego, California.
“Ultimately, external event planning costs for this conference totaled $67,040, or double the approved estimated amount, and accounted for 64 percent of the $105,564 total cost of the conference.
“TSA reported that 158 participants attended the conference, equaling conference planning costs of about $424 per attendee.
“We identified $329,438 in conference spending for which components did not provide adequate documentation. Additionally, components did not always demonstrate that using external conference planners was cost effective.
“Consequently, DHS cannot ensure that conference spending is always in the best interest of the Federal Government and taxpayers.”