A mind reader, a clown…

by Brian McKim & Traci Skene on April 3rd, 2012

… and a comedian.

The wires are crackling with the report of the lavish “over-the-top” training session thrown recently in Vegas by a division of the General Services Administration. Heads rolled after news of the $822,751 party. The head of the GSA was canned along with a handful of underlings.

What caught our attention was the coverage of the story.

They list many “abuses”– $130,000 for six “scouting trips,” $7,000 for sushi, $6,300 for “commemorative coin sets displayed in velvet boxes” and $31,000 on a networking reception– but the items that make it into the headlines, ledes and sub-heads are:

The gems listed above don’t even include the clown and the comedian.(solomonscandals.com)

A mind-reader, a clown and a comedian attended a General Services Administration taxpayer funded convention. (whitehousedossier.com)

Agency billed $835,000 for comedians and clowns in Vegas. (freebeacon.com)

The chief of the General Services Administration is resigning and two of her top deputies have been fired amid reports of excessive spending at a training conference at a luxury hotel that featured a mind reader, a clown and a comedian. (Concordmonitor.com)

And the last line of paragraph three of an article on BusinessInsider.com says, “The (Washington) Post does not specify how much money was spent on the clown and the comedian.”

And a website which purports to keep tabs on political developments affecting residents of New Hampshire, granitegrok.com, listed close to a quarter of a million dollars in expenditures, then asks:

And if it were deemed inadequate for these government hacks and their invitees to nosh on the splendor provided, several semi-private “parties,” hosted by GSA officials in their own hotel suites, were also catered at the expense of the American taxpayer. I want to know what was paid for the Clown and the comedian that were hired for this junket?

Emphasis ours.

Why is everyone so fixated on the clown and the comedian? The mind reader was paid, according to all reports, a grand total of $3,200.  Okay.  Nothing extraordinary there. (In fact, we’d say that might be a bit on the low side for a professional mind reader hired by a conference with an $822,751 budget.) But, since it’s now part of the narrative, such a figure has become a clear indication of extravagance!

And, for some reason, the salaries for the clown and the comic have been left out of the accounts of the conference. And it is doubly puzzling that the mind reader the clown and the comic are not mentioned in the 23-page report issued by the inspector general.

So where did the press get the figure for the mind reader? And why didn’t they also get the figures for the clown and the comic? A Wall Street Journal report on the story says, “An administration official said the expenses also included about $3,000 for a mind-reader to entertain attendees, though the inspector general’s report made no mention of it.” An administration official? Why is an unattributed “administration official” giving out details like this? And, since the figure wasn’t included in the IG report, can we even trust it? And, since neither the clown nor the comedian were mentioned in the report, can we trust that there was in fact a clown or a comedian hired?

We ask this because speculation (see above) is running rampant. And the clown and the comedian are taking the brunt of the criticism and have become symbolic of government waste and fraud (and of extravagance in general). And, since no one seems to be doing any investigation or numbers-crunching when reporting on the conference or when analyzing the fallout, the exact figure for the clown and the comic will probably never be known.

We can only hope that the clown and the comic were paid as much as the mind reader.  Otherwise, they are two pissed-off entertainers right now.

Nor would that be very helpful at this point in time. The damage is done. It was bad enough when the president trashed Vegas in two separate incidents one year apart, but now Vegas is, courtesy of the knuckleheads at the GSA, once again associated with “over the top” spending. And the mind-reader, the clown and the comedian are all symbolic of that extravagance.

We suppose it was too much of a temptation for such outlets as Gawker.com (who ran, side-by-side, a pic of GSA Head Martha Johnson and a stock photo of a clown) to make the association for their readers of spendthrift bureaucrats and clowns. It’s classic. But we’re surprised that the $7,000 sushi and the $1,900 petit beef Wellingtons didn’t make an equally attractive hook for the “out-of-touch, elitist bureaucrat” angle. Instead, the three folks who were probably paid a reasonable sum for their services have become emblematic of waste and fraud.

Now, we would not be surprised if event planners are acutely aware of appearances and will gladly arrange for $2,850 worth of  “Artisanal Cheese Displays” without batting an eye, but will steer clients clear of hiring a comedian because, well, it might look bad.

As comics living in Vegas– who would love to pick up the occasional corporate gig (and be happy to be paid about as much as it costs to rustle up 150 Artisinal Cheese Displays)– we find this to be disturbing.  (P.S.: We won’t leave the house for less than it costs to provide 400 Mini Monte Christo Sandwiches.)