Politics

New documents reveal lavish spending at government-subsidized travel-promotion agency

Photo of Caroline May
Caroline May
Political Reporter

Promoting travel to America can be expensive — especially if Uncle Sam is footing most of the bill.

Documents exclusively obtained by The Daily Caller show extensive waste and mismanagement at the public-private partnership Brand USA, a government-backed travel-promotion agency established in May 2011 under Travel Promotion Act of 2009 to encourage foreign travelers to visit the United States.

Some of the new organization’s recent expenses include $4,139 for 250 holiday cards, $3,592 for a holiday e-card and $2,449 for a ringtone version of the Rosanne Cash song “Land of Dreams,” which was created specifically for a sweeping Brand USA promotional campaign.

Also among the expenditures, according to the documents, are $2,700 for 26 sets of business cards and $50,252 for giveaway materials at the International Pow Wow trade show, which was held at the Los Angeles Convention Center earlier this year. The agency spent nearly $35,000 on Chinese-made water bottles for the event.

And Brand USA spent close to $1 million on its posh launch party in London last year, including $69,300 on freebies for attendees. Almost $50,000 went to neck wallets, and the organization dished out a grand total of $13,101 for umbrellas.

Brand USA has also paid out approximately $1 million in severance pay to eight terminated employees, the documents show. (RELATED: GAO report says U.S. is on “unsustainable long-term fiscal path”)

In October, the Senate’s top Republican waste hawks released a report, titled “Initial Investigation of Brand USA and the Department of Commerce’s Oversight,” which detailed some of the agency’s lavish expenditures.

But Brand USA, which received $2 from the government for every $1 it received in cash and non-cash contributions throughout fiscal year 2012, seems to have lacked leadership, in addition to frugality.

A comprehensive audit of Brand USA, produced by KTS Business Consulting and exclusively obtained by TheDC, painted a particularly unflattering picture of the agency’s management.

“Although The Brand USA has a mission statement, not one staff member was able to recite it,” the audit reads. “Furthermore, a majority of the staff did not have any idea what the mission was. … It became very clear that The Brand USA needs a strong vision. Staff’s responses were all varied, and it identified that there is not a consensus on the direction of the organization. … Staff spends money without any checks and balances or funds tied to a budget.”

Anne Madison, a Brand USA spokeswoman, explained to TheDC that trade shows are an important part of promoting travel to the United States, and maintained that the agency’s expenses are reasonable.

“All expenditures for [the London] event went toward raising awareness of and inspiring travel to the United States, and are on par with any good marketing strategy to increase awareness, engagement and loyalty from those who significantly influence inbound travel to the USA,” Madison wrote in an email.

Madison insisted that 85 percent of the organization’s funding goes to marketing and programs to meet its international travel goals. And, citing internal Brand USA numbers, she claimed that “intent to visit” the U.S. has increased 12 percent in Canada, 14 percent in Japan and 14 percent in the United Kingdom since the agency’s launch.