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Benjamin Spillman

Aide says Obama not anti-Vegas

13 March 2009

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Don't bet on President Barack Obama putting what's left of the U.S. Treasury on a craps table, but don't expect him to get in the way of anyone else who wants to visit Las Vegas for legitimate business or pleasure.

That's what Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs said, in roundabout fashion, in response to the suggestion a rhetorical swipe at cavorting fat cats was meant to dissuade businesses from holding meetings in Las Vegas.

"I don't think the president said don't go to Las Vegas," Gibbs said, according to a transcript of a White House press briefing. "What the president expressed some concern about was companies that are getting large amounts of public funding, taxpayer funding through a financial stabilization plan, that the president does have great concern with public money being used for that."

The comment was an apparent response to outrage from a phalanx of travel boosters led by Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman.

"You can't get corporate jets, you can't go take a trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayer's dime," Obama told an audience in Elkhart, Ind., on Feb. 9.

Goodman and others took the remark as a warning shot from the Oval Office that businesses hosting conventions, meetings or other events in Las Vegas could be in line for a public shaming.

It came around the time CNN did a report titled "Keeping them honest" that was critical of a banking event held at The Venetian. In another instance, banking giant Wells Fargo backed out of 12-day event at Wynn Las Vegas that was symbolic of what critics called reckless spending. Others said incentive trips like the one Wells Fargo had planned are among the most cost-effective tools available for companies to motivate new sales.

Goldman Sachs bank later bailed out of an event at Mandalay Bay, only to pay a reported $600,000 cancellation fee and move the shindig to San Francisco.

In the weeks since, there have been dozens more cancellations of Las Vegas business events. While many were blamed on the suddenly stagnant global economy, meeting planners, hotel executives and convention industry leaders said comments from the president and other politicians exacerbated the problem.

In addition to the Gibbs statement, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., also weighed in on the issue.

In a letter to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, Reid supported rules to clearly define what the government considers to be out of bounds when it comes to businesses spending taxpayer money.

"Completing guidelines on luxury and excessive expenditures will provide needed clarity to firms receiving TARP assistance, but perhaps as importantly it could also reassure the broader business community that conventions and meetings are a routine and accepted part of running a successful enterprise in this country," Reid wrote.

Whether the statement by Gibbs will put an end to the rhubarb remains to be seen.

Goodman, who was in Washington, D.C., with officials from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and the U.S. Travel Association, was pleased with the remarks.

"I think that the bottom line was he said the president wasn't trying to point out that Las Vegas is a place you shouldn't go to," he said.

But there's still some apparent distance between how Goodman and Obama would define legitimate Las Vegas spending.

Gibbs said of Obama, "His concern, the concern he specifically expressed, had to do with the use of taxpayer or use of money by institutions that received a lot of assistance from the taxpayers. Obviously, that's not something he would incorporate."

Goodman said the president conceded there are legitimate reasons for companies that received money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program to make business trips to Las Vegas.

"The inference certainly was Las Vegas was an appropriate place to go to even by TARP companies as long it is for legitimate purposes, meeting purposes," he said.