The head of the General Services Administration turned a one-day speech at an Amsterdam conference into a 12-day grand tour of Europe at taxpayers' expense.
GSA Administrator Richard Austin and his entourage spent more than $22,000 on the trip in late September. Among the travelers was a bodyguard who is the son of the Capitol Hill staff director for the House subcommittee that sets the GSA budget.The GSA is the federal government's landlord and supply store - managing office buildings and doling out pencils. Apparently Austin thought he could learn from touring castles in Dublin and meeting the queen's paper supplier in London.
In a July memo to the White House to explain the trip, Austin said he wanted to "foster improved relations . . . and exchange information . . . personally view GSA operations and discuss . . . views on how well we are providing service."
Austin's report of the trip strains to justify it. He lectured the International Symposium on Office Accommodation in Amsterdam on the topic, "Office Accommodation Policy of the American Government."
Actually, the delegation toured a palace in the Netherlands, the Dutch Parliament, a museum in Amsterdam, Dublin Castle and a National Park in Ireland, and U.S. military bases in England and Germany.
In London they stayed in a four-star hotel, paying $200 plus a night for rooms. In London, Austin visited Her Majesty's Stationery Office, because its director had visited the United States and Austin wanted to find out if "there were any outstanding issues for GSA." There weren't.
According to a GSA spokesman, each GSA administrator makes a similar trip to review the troops, but sources in the agency told our associate Dean Boyd the trip was "a sad waste of money."
If the trip alone was not enough to stir GSA grumblings, the selection of James Gunnels as a security guard did the trick. He is the son of Tex Gunnels, the staff director of the House subcommittee that doles out money to GSA.
James Gunnels is a criminal investigator with the Federal Protective Service stationed in Fort Worth, Texas. Attached to the GSA, the service provides security for federal buildings.
There are some 200 Federal Protective Service agents in Washington that Austin could have taken, but a GSA spokesman told us James Gunnels was chosen "because he's one of the best."
We asked his father, Tex Gunnels, if his powerful position with the appropriations subcommittee could have had anything to do with the choice of his son for the trip.
"I don't see how the hell it could," Tex Gunnels told us, adding that his son was "ordered to go."
It was a tough job, but somebody had to do it.
Federal Protective Services officers can't carry guns overseas, but the GSA said it needed a security man to plan the trip because of overseas travel warnings posted by the State Department after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
There is a bright side to this story. Austin's wife joined the delegation in Ireland, but she paid her own way.