Five city employees have been ordered to pay back hundreds of dollars that they received for food while traveling to a conference in October, after the News4 I-Team discovered the workers claimed reimbursements for a day when they were home.
The employees were among 30 Parks and Recreation Department employees on an October trip to Houston which cost the city $54,000. The five employees claimed reimbursements for food per diems for Oct. 11, though flight records showed the employees returned home Oct. 10.
The cost and size of the trip -- and the fact that it happened during October's federal government shutdown -- has drawn the scrutiny of Mayor Vincent Gray and D.C. Council members Tommy Wells and David Grosso.
“I am concerned about it," Gray said after he was informed of the size of the trip by the News4 I-Team. It was an important convention to go to. But there's just no way we should have sent that number of people at that level of expense."
Wells and Grosso both said the council might eventually explore legislation to formally limit the amount of money D.C. agencies are permitted to spend on travel.
Managers and employees of the Parks and Recreation Department traveled to Texas to join the 2013 National Recreation and Park Association Congress and Exposition, which was attended by 6,000 people nationwide. Though the event included seminars, lectures and educational presentations, it also featured a series of social events, including buffets, dancing, a golf tournament and themed evening events.
Airfare, $209-a-night hotel rooms, per diem payments and registration fees totaled about $54,000 for the D.C. Parks and Recreation Department delegation. Top agency managers, including acting director Sharia Shanklin and former director Jesus Aguirre, were among those who attended.
The D.C. Parks and Recreation Department was also honored by conference organizers during the event. The agency received a Commission for Accreditation of Park and Recreation (CAPRA) certification, which Parks and Recreation Department spokesman John Stokes said is an award D.C. Parks and Recreation had long sought.
Aguirre said trip planners would likely seek approval from the mayor before future trips to parks industry conferences. “Any time we spend taxpayer funds, we have to be very careful and very deliberate about it,” Aguirre said. “Next year, when we go to this event, we want to make sure the mayor is absolutely on board with it."
The five-day trip occurred amid the long government shutdown, which forced D.C. government to tighten its finances. Stokes said provisions were made to avoid spending any of D.C.’s special shutdown contingency funds during the trip. Stokes says the agency paid air travel costs before the shutdown began and delayed paying hotel and registration costs until after the shutdown ended.
Stokes said agency employees attended many of the dozens of conference’s educational sessions – and in some cases led training presentations - while in attendance. “We do a lot of training. Training is very important to us. Everyone knows that within this industry -- you have to have constant training,” Stokes said. “If it were up to me, we'd be sending more (people). It's just that important.”
Stokes said the former director, Aguirre, was one of the session presenters.
Still, the controversy over the trip could cause more trouble for Aguirre. Gray had named him to be the District's new state superintendent of education before the news of the trip broke.
Now, however, Wells and Grosso told News4 they they are less likely to vote for Aguirre's confirmation as state superintendent.
And the trip has angered taxpayer watchdog groups.
David Williams, executive director of the Virginia-based Taxpayer Protection Alliance, said the D.C. Parks and Recreation Department’s decision to send employees to a conference including leisure activities and dancing events, amid a government shutdown, sets a poor example.
Williams said, “This is a waste of money. Somebody should’ve had common sense and said ‘no’ we’re not going to do this.”