CBS News producer Chris Scholl wrote this story for CBSNews.com
NASA's long-standing practice of honoring retirees and contractors with lavish award ceremonies costing millions of dollars a year may be over. President Bush signed the NASA Reauthorization Act providing funding for the agency as well as tough new restrictions on conference spending.
CBS News Investigative Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson first exposed the practice last Fall. In that report, hundreds of former NASA contractors and employees were seen in video and pictures attending one ceremony in Florida - airfare and lodging picked up by taxpayers. Taxpayers also picked up the tab for gourmet food and wine receptions for 750-people at just one ceremony alone.
Bryan O'Connor, NASA's Chief of Safety, defended the practice at the time as a way to honor former employees and contractors. "It's the cost of dinner and putting someone up in a hotel for a couple of days," O'Connor said.
CBS News, however, found the actual cost of the awards program conferences was as high as $4-million a year. At one conference alone, NASA spent more than $100-thousand on the reception, dinner and awards. It paid more than $25-thousand so attendees could watch a shuttle launch. And it spent nearly $200-thousand on hotel rooms and airfare for attendees from around the country. All of those costs were born by taxpayers.
If that sounds pricey, it's even more so when you consider that NASA has held these ceremonies nearly every time there is a shuttle launch - for years.
At the time the CBS News story exposed the practice, NASA had also been begging Congress for more funding. "I think it's kind of ironic that they're going to be extravagant with how they spend money," said Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican and frequent critic of wasteful spending. "And they're coming to us saying they want more."
Coburn spearheaded the new provisions in NASA's funding bill which place limits on any conference spending in excess of $20-thousand. The bill signed into law by the President also establishes tough new reporting requirements so that conference organizers must better account for the money they spend.
By Chris Scholl