July 15, 2009 -- Claiming they needed to learn how to reduce stress because of a growing number of death threats being made against them, nearly 700 executives from the Social Security Administration (SSA) gathered for a lavish three-day conference in Phoenix, AZ last week, costing taxpayers about $700,000.
"We received threats against our employees by people who are in the American public," said SSA Regional Commissioner for San Francisco Peter Spencer in defense of the conference. He said "there is a tremendous amount of stress involved in the job that we do."
The conference, which included a performance by a motivational dance company that was captured on tape by Phoenix affiliate ABC15, was held at the Arizona Biltmore, a hotel described as the "Jewel of the Desert" with an oasis of 39 acres of lush gardens, swimming pools and a golf course. SSA executives were invited to join in the dancing.
But the partying didn't stop there. Some of the government managers brought along their relatives, and there was a night excursion to a local casino.
Even top Social Security administrator Michael Astrue made a special guest appearance. His spokesman said he flew coach, and the SSA said it arranged the lowest rate possible for the event.
Critics were incensed with the spending, especially during a financial crisis, and took issue with the idea that executives saved as much money as possible.
"Actually, they didn't do it as low cost as possible," said David Williams of the watchdog Citizens Against Government Waste group. "Because as low cost as possible would be a video teleconference. It would not be flying people in from all around the country to have this conference."
The SSA said such in-person meetings are essential, and this Phoenix gathering was just one in a series of such regional meetings, at a cost of over $1 million in the last year alone.
Congressman Kevin Brady, R-TX, was outraged to learn how the financially-troubled SSA, which is expected to be insolvent in less than 30 years unless taxes are raised substantially, is spending its dwindling money.
"It's especially frustrating when you have people who truly are disabled," said Brady. "Who will wait years just to get their case heard and years more just to get a little help."