KANSAS CITY, Mo. (CNN) - Amid an ongoing congressional probe into the General Services Administration, a CNN investigation has uncovered more evidence of wasteful spending at the agency, including cooking classes for employees that cost as much as $3,350 per class.
For years, the GSA paid to send employees to these cooking classes to build team spirit, part of a spending pattern that the agency now says was inappropriate.
Employees based in Kansas City, Missouri, attended classes at The Culinary Center of Kansas City, located in suburban Overland Park, where they cooked meals.
The GSA confirmed that there were nine classes beginning in June 2007, with the last class in June 2011. The total cost to the GSA was $20,701.
"We should be thinking about our federal customers, our taxpayers and our associates," said one employee who attended a cooking class. "And that seems to have been lost in these team-building exercises ... If you don't go, you're ostracized.''
The employee works in the Kansas City office and requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to CNN and feared reprisals from his supervisors.
"These events indicate a pattern of misjudgment, which spans several years and administrations," GSA spokeswoman Betsaida Alcantara told CNN in a statement.
In the world of trillion-dollar government budgets, the classes do not amount to a significant sum of money. However, the unnamed employee and other insiders told CNN that this was part of the free-spending culture that went on for years at the GSA's Kansas City regional headquarters.
Congressional committees are examining GSA spending after a scathing inspector general's report issued earlier this year showed lavish spending -- $823,000 -- at the Western Regions Conference, which took place in Las Vegas in October 2010. Jeff Neely, the GSA official who organized the conference, resigned, as well the agency's administrator, Martha Johnson. Two of Johnson's deputies were fired and eight other employees left the agency. Dan Tangherlini, a former Treasury Department official, took over as acting GSA administrator.
The General Services Administration, which has more than 12,600 employees and a $26.3 billion budget, is tasked with helping manage and support government agencies.
In addition to the Las Vegas conference, the GSA apparently spent $330,000 to relocate an employee from Denver to Hawaii -- and likely millions more dollars on other employees over a two year period -- according to a transcript of an interview with a GSA event planner. And 84 GSA employees, most of them supervisors or other senior staff -- all subjects of inspector general investigations -- are still collecting their bonuses, totaling more than $1 million in taxpayer money.
Alcantara says all the agency's practices are under a top-down review.
"This must stop, and is why Acting Administrator Tangherlini has instituted stringent new policies on conferences and events -- to put an end to this misuse of taxpayer dollars," she said in the GSA statement.
Laura Laiben, who owns The Culinary Center in Kansas City, said it appeared from her records that the GSA also had two classes in 2004, but the agency could not find records of those events. She referred CNN to the GSA regarding the costs of the classes.
During the classes, participants prepare meals as team-building exercises. But under the new GSA policy, any future team-building events could only be held in a federal facility.
"Only light refreshments, like water and pretzels, would be allowed," the GSA statement said. A GSA spokesperson on Thursday clarified the agency's policy, saying that no food will be permitted at any team building exercises.
GSA records show classes from June 2007 to June 2011, with the cost ranging from $1,162 to $3,350 per class, depending on the number of employees who attended. The size of the classes varied from eight to 37 employees.
The culinary center's "menu of classes" states that its "state-of-the-art kitchens create a unique atmosphere where your group can work together to build trust, develop plans of action, work toward a common goal, make it happen and celebrate their accomplishments."
The GSA turned down repeated requests by CNN for an on-camera interview with Tangherlini or Jason Klumb, the regional administrator for the Heartland region.
However, Tangherlini agreed to an interview on Wednesday, hours before this story was schedule to air on CNN's AC360.
"I think the most important thing is we need to make -- we need to get a message across that this isn't what GSA is about. People aren't coming to work for cooking classes," Tangherlini said. "They aren't coming to work for awards or prizes. They are coming to work for an important mission that's critical to serving our agencies that serve the American people. And so that's the trick for us is to really build a better sense of expectation of what it is that we're going to do every day when we do our jobs."
He said employees "really believe