Update: FEMA conference in Las Vegas

There will be some Federal Emergency Management Agency staffers traveling to Las Vegas in May after all.

Last week, there was a bit of confusion about a FEMA confab supposedly being planned here. Spending hawk Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., saw a mention of such an event in a news story and fired off a letter demanding to know why, in these belt-tightening times, the agency was jetting off to Las Vegas.

FEMA could find no record of such a conference, which also was not listed on Web sites that catalogue the local convention business. Dennis LoBene, the federal worker who’d been the source of the news report about it, said there was no travel involved — the meeting in question was a gathering of local staffers only.

After further research, however, agency officials in Washington discovered there is in fact some travel to Las Vegas in the works. Tentatively scheduled for May 6-7 is a planning conference put on by FEMA’s National Preparedness Directorate for a mock emergency exercise to be held here next year, FEMA spokesman Terry Monrad said today.

The annual National Level Exercises bring together federal, state, local and sometimes even international emergency responders to rehearse disaster scenarios. (Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who oversees FEMA, had some concerns about one such exercise in her state.) Monrad estimated that about 60 federal, state and local staffers will gather here in May to plan the 2010 Las Vegas exercise.

Arrangements for the meeting haven’t been finalized, and it’s not known precisely how many federal staffers will travel or how much the meeting will cost. But Monrad said since the exercise will take place here, the planning meeting for the exercise also has to take place here. It’s not a junket or an example of frivolous government travel, he said.

"The conference is held at the location in which the exercise is going to take place," he said. "If your state and city are involved (in such an exercise), it would probably better to have the conference there, rather than Maine."

The agency is drafting a formal response to Coburn’s letter, Monrad said.

Coburn, whose long-held belief that much government travel is a waste of money dovetailed with the president’s recent condemnation of Las Vegas junkets, also criticized another Las Vegas trip last week. The senator also noted approvingly that President Obama cited savings on travel in his speech in Washington Monday to his White House Fiscal Reponsibility Summit: The Department of Agriculture, he said, is "saving tens of thousands of dollars by cutting back on conferences and travel and other small expenses that add up over time.”

But the junketeering by companies receiving federal bailout funds, which was the original target of Obama’s ire, has not stopped. Today, Northern Trust Corp. is being criticized for a company-sponsored golf tournament in California.

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