Two D.C. Council members are criticizing a pricey trip made by 30 city government employees, amid the October government shutdown, and taxpayers might soon be reimbursed for some of the expenses in the wake of a News4 I-Team investigation.
The News4 I-Team’s report revealed taxpayers spent about $54,000 to send the group of dozens of Washington, D.C., Parks and Recreation Department employees to an industry conference in Houston in October, amid the two-week federal government shutdown. The size of the group, the timing of the trip, and the number of expenses had already drawn the scrutiny of D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray.
On Friday, D.C. Council members Tommy Wells and David Grosso also publicly criticized the size and cost of the trip.
“I’m very disappointed in the director of Parks and Recreation for approving that trip,” Wells said.
Grosso said, "The timing, around the shutdown, was completely inappropriate. They should have recognized it was not the time to send that many people.”
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 from Oct. 7 to Oct. 11 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. News4 I-Team cameras captured images of elegant buffets and groups dances at one of those evening sessions.
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.
Aguirre’s travel records indicate he arrived three days earlier than his colleagues. His flight from D.C. to Houston departed Oct. 4.
Aguirre told News4’s Mark Seagraves he arrived early to visit family in Texas. He 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."
Despite food being available at multiple conference events, each of the 30 D.C. employees submitted expense reports seeking maximum reimbursements for “food per diems”, $71 for each employee for each full day in Houston.
The News4 I-Team’s review of expense reports show five of the 30 employees sought “per diem” reimbursements for Oct. 11, 2013, out-of-town food expenses, even though flight records indicate the employees returned to D.C. Oct. 10. A city official said the discrepancy is likely a “clerical error” and promised the agency would review the per diem expense and reimburse the money.
Mayor Gray said he was not notified about the trip, nor did he personally authorize it. He first learned details of the expenses after being notified by the News4 I-Team. Gray said, “I am concerned about it. 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."
The five-day trip occurred amid the long government shutdown, which forced D.C. government to tighten its finances. Parks and Recreation Department spokesman John 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.
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 Stokes said is an award D.C. Parks and Recreation had long sought. National Recreation and Park Association spokeswoman Lauren Hoffman, in a written statement to the News4 I-Team, said the CAPRA is a highly coveted award, for which an agency representative must appear in person at the conference to accept. “It is the only national accreditation of park and recreation agencies and is a valuable measure of an agency’s overall quality of operation, management and service to the community,” said Hoffman.
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.”
Hoffman, the National Recreation and Park Association spokeswoman, said, “Leisure activities, both the attendance of and remittance for, are at the discretion of the attendee and agency. The leisure activities such as the golf tournament are not included in the full conference registration package.”
Stokes said he does not recall any of those employees playing golf.