Lawmaker sets sights on another federal agency trip to Las Vegas

WASHINGTON — After an initial misfire, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma has set his sights on another government agency planning a conference in Las Vegas. This one is for federal cemetery managers.

The Republican spending hawk said he wants to know how much the National Cemetery Administration plans to spend on a four-day meeting in June, whether other cities were considered for the gathering of 250-300 people, and whether it could be held by teleconference instead.

In a letter to organizers, Coburn demanded an explanation as to why the meeting would be in Las Vegas in light of President Barack Obama’s chiding of corporate executives traveling to the city “on the taxpayer’s dime” after receiving federal bailouts.

“I am not questioning the value of the conference’s topics but the event itself raises questions given the difficult economic times our country is currently facing,” Coburn said in a letter Thursday.

The letter was sent to Attorney General Eric Holder, as the Justice Department is handling conference logistics for the small cemetery agency, a branch of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

David Schettler, a spokesman for the National Cemetery Administration, called the meeting an annual training session for managers and foremen from national cemeteries around the country. He said it might not take place as the VA is reviewing all upcoming travel and meetings for cost cuts.

“We did our research on eight to 10 cities,” Schettler said, and Las Vegas was competitive for cost and for the ease of flying in attendees from around the country. Depending on attendance, the agency might spend $350,000 for the June 22-26 meetings, he said. A hotel has not been picked yet.

The meeting was held in New Orleans last year. In other recent years, the cemetery managers have met in Atlanta, Portland, Ore., St. Louis, Phoenix and Minneapolis. Schettler said the conference was held in Las Vegas about eight to 10 years ago.

The VA had no immediate comment on Coburn’s letter. Officials at the Justice Department could not be reached for comment.

It was the second Las Vegas conference that Coburn sought to spotlight this week, as Obama’s passing — but controversial — mention of Las Vegas during a Feb. 9 appearance in Elkhart, Ind., continues to reverberate.

Speaking at a town hall meeting in the economically strapped community, Obama was critical of finance companies that were planning Las Vegas meetings after receiving bailout money from the Treasury Department.

“You can’t get corporate jets, you can’t go take a trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayer’s dime,” Obama said.

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman demanded a retraction while resort officials expressed fear the president’s bully pulpit was costing them business.

Earlier this week Coburn challenged a Las Vegas gathering of 200 people being organized for May by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But officials said all the participants would be local federal workers undergoing required disaster management training.

In the president’s remarks, Coburn found new momentum for one of his perennial issues: Challenging questionable travel by federal employees.

“What he has always identified is a ‘spring break mentality’ at federal agencies, where events and conferences that could be held are somehow scheduled in more exotic locations,” spokesman John Hart said.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., believes Coburn should redirect his energy to fix the economy rather than singling out Las Vegas, his spokesman said Friday.

Coburn “should spend less time trying to put hard-working Nevadans out of work and more time working with us on solutions to fix our broken economy,” spokesman Jon Summers said.

Geoff Freeman, senior vice president of the U.S. Travel Association, said it is past time for travel-bashing to stop.

Travel means jobs no matter where it happens, said Freeman, whose group has issued guidelines for acceptable travel by companies that receive federal lending.

“This game of Whack-A-Destination is absurd,” Freeman said. “I hope members of Congress realize if they keep at it, it is only a matter of time before it gets around to cities in their districts.”

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760.

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