USDA Jobs A Day At The Beach?

Hands count money over US Capitol building dome, on flag and star texture, 3-21-02
Farming and food are the focus at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and USDA employees have been doing an awful lot of work in the field. But not the kind you may be thinking about.

We're talking field trips to conferences at popular resorts and exotic locations around the world - all at taxpayer expense, CBS News investigative correspondent Sharyl Attkisson reports.

According to a new Congressional report obtained by CBS News:

  • In 2006 alone, 20,959 USDA employees attended 6,719 conferences around the world.
  • That includes 94 in Las Vegas, costing $254,755
  • As well as 59 in Orlando, totaling $282,656.
  • And 28 in Hawaii - which cost almost $2,000 per person

    They went to the Virgin Islands to study preventing pollution in the Caribbean.

    And one lucky USDA employee went halfway around the world to attend a conference in Australia at the Surfers Paradise Resort. The subject matter: Mississippi crayfish. They could've been studied closer to home … but the waves aren't as good in the bayou.

    From 2000 to 2006, USDA spent an astonishing $90 million tax dollars on conferences.

    Many of them appear to be on productive topics. But Sen. Tom Coburn says far too many are not. He helped lead the investigation into all that spending.

    "Would you ever spend that money on yourself, if, in fact, you had a tight budget and you were borrowing what money you didn't have from your grandkids?" Coburn said. "Nobody in their right mind would do that."

    The new farm bill just passed by Congress requires the USDA to post on the Web all the conferences it attends and sponsors. The idea is the risk of public disclosure and embarrassment might curb the lavish travel.

    The USDA told us they recently "reviewed" and "revised" their policies "to help contain expenses." And that conferences can have "a tremendous public benefit."

    But what about the six USDA employees who went to learn how Congress works? They didn't go right up the street to the Capitol, where Congress meets most every day. They travelled 4,500 miles for a conference at the Hilton Resort and Spa … in Honolulu.

    By Sharyl Attkisson

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