Scientists Gone Wild?

attkisson follow the money researchers partying
Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee is a center for federal research. It also sponsors conferences that attract bright scientific minds.

Too bad the bosses running the meetings aren't so smart when it comes to spending your tax dollars, CBS News investigative correspondent Sharyl Attkisson reports.

It seems they've been exploring a lot more than plasma microturbulence at their scientific get-togethers - sometimes breaking the rules.

Conference registration fees are supposed to be used to defray taxpayer costs. Instead, the Inspector General found they've been diverted for unallowed items like alcohol, parties, cigars, gifts and entertainment.

Attkisson asked Gerald Boyd, head of Oak Ridge operations: "$27,000 for a yacht club event; $13,000 for alcohol and food at a social event; $650 on cigars and wine. That sounds frivolous."

"Yes, it is," Boyd said.

If it sounds like "Scientists Gone Wild," Boyd, admits it looks bad.

"We can't allow these kinds of things to continue, and we think we've taken the steps we need to prevent that from happening," he said.

Some of the worst violations involve meals, which the inspector general called unreasonably "upscale and elaborate." At a four-day conference in Boston, they ran up a $236,000 tab to feed 318 hungry scientists.

The limit was supposed to be $61 reach. But the actual bill came to more than $230 dollars per person per day. That's almost 400 percent over budget.

When organizers were asked why they ran up such a tab, they used fuzzy math: They spent $61 on each meal - breakfast, lunch, and dinner - and don't forget the snacks.

On top of that, some attendees "claimed and were reimbursed for meals" they got for free.

All that, at taxpayer expense.

"That seems inappropriate on so many levels," Attkisson said.

"It is," Boyd responded. "We believe that when that does happen, it is incumbent on management and leaders of the department to go to those employees and say, 'you made a mistake. Don't do it again.'"

"But no discipline?" Attkisson asked. "No punishment for people who misused taxpayer money?"

"There wasn't any criminal activity that was pointed out," Boyd said. "What was pointed out was inappropriate use of funds, and that is being fixed."

Something else is being fixed: All this time, Oak Ridge had been skirting federal requirements that call for advance approval of conference plans.

Now the bosses have agreed to a more scientific approach: They'll actually follow the rules.

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    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.