By LARRY MARGASAK, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — The General Services Administration developed an employee awards program that spent more than $438,000 over four years, far exceeding the agency's per-gift limit of $99, congressional investigators reported Friday.
Investigators for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee said the "Hats Off Program" initially gave out items of nominal value. Over time, the awards became iPods, digital cameras, GPS devices and other electronics. The spending occurred from 2007 through 2010, the report said.
The GSA, the real estate agency for federal buildings, said in a statement that the program has ended. "Operations have been suspended pending a continuing top down review of all spending," the statement said.
The agency has been under fire from Congress after its inspector general reported this week that GSA lavishly spent $820,000 for a Las Vegas conference in 2010. The head of the agency resigned, two deputies were fired and other employees were suspended. The Transportation panel and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee are just starting investigations of the agency's wasteful spending.
The Transportation panel said the inspector general learned of the awards program from an agency of the Department of Homeland Security. The Federal Protective Service initially said that about 40 iPods with an estimated value of $8,000 were reported stolen. Further investigation revealed some 115 of the devices valued at more than $20,000 were unaccounted for and may have been stolen.
In 2009, the average gift per employee in the agency's Public Buildings Service was $328, the Transportation Committee said. Top awards went to people who were involved with administering the program.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the Transportation panel, said, "The Hats Off award program degenerated into a taxpayer funded giveaway where employees handed out iPods to their office buddies for almost any reason. Not surprisingly, the IG (inspector general's) report identified the supervisors who ran the Hats Off store as the biggest winners of taxpayer swag."
Mica added that the agency awarded a regional commissioner responsible for the Las Vegas conference and the excessive awards a $9,000 cash bonus after the official received inspector general briefings on both the conference and the Hats Off Program.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said her committee will hold a hearing on the GSA report Wednesday.
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