I-Team treasure hunt turns up millions in taxpayer-funded trinkets

CHICAGO (WLS) -- The ABC7 I-Team is on a treasure hunt for trinkets that cost taxpayers millions of dollars, and are a profit center for some Chicago area companies.

Our treasure hunt turned up key rings, mugs, notebooks, pens, golf umbrellas and stress balls - items bought with your tax money by the government to promote the government. And, this is the same government $17 trillion in debt.

Our trip around the world to find your tax dollars starts at this strip mall in west suburban Geneva. Headquartered here is a company called Amerimac, paid millions for what the government calls promotional items, including this broccoli-shaped squeezable branded by the U.S. Agriculture Department and intended to relieve stress. Two-and-a-half years ago President Obama signed an executive order to slash spending on these trinkets.

"From the day I took office I made a commitment to the American people that we would do a better job rooting out wasteful spending," said Obama.

But we've discovered since then the Obama Administration has spent nearly two million tax dollars at suburban Amerimac alone; and more than just fake broccoli. Their online catalog shows giveaway coins marked with government logos and a GSA golf bag.

"It's a complete waste of money," said Susan Garrett, Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

But when the I-Team went to get answers. . .

"I really don't want to talk about it," said Patrick McDonnell, president, Amerimac.

Amerimac officials repeatedly declined to discuss their government contracts.

"It has absolutely no value, it's a take-home item, it's something you might give your kids or your neighbors or put in a grab bag but these are hard-earned dollars that are being spent on these frivolous items, not fair to taxpayers," said Garrett.

Illinois vendors are supplying the government with everything from Frisbee disc golf targets and retirement watches, to custom oven mitts and ice cream machines - even $9,000 tax dollars in pepperoni and cheese pizzas for a federal prison. And take a look at this: the "African Blues Bros" painting by Chicago-born artist Charles Jean-Pierre. The state department paid him $45,000 to hang his picture at the U.S. Embassy in Benin, Africa.

Nearly $10,000 in taxpayer dollars went to these hanging textiles from a Chicago artist for the embassy in Zambia; $27,000 more to a Chicago art broker for this "Still Life with Tiger" to hang in Khartoum, Sudan.

"This will go to permanent collection in the US Embassy in Kabul Afghanistan," said Lincoln Schatz, Chicago artist.

Schatz created this soldiers' display that originally hung in the lobby of the state department. Taxpayer tab? $112,000.

"I think if we look at the federal budget annually and look at how the money is distributed and where the larger expenditures are I think that these are very, very, very, very small numbers," said Schatz. "I think these are very effective programs at creating these dialogues between cultures."

Finally, at the new U.S. Embassy swimming pool in Djibouti, there are new patio umbrellas made by a suburban Elk Grove Village company. The cost to taxpayers is $5,600.

State Department Arts in Embassies Program Q&A

A spokesman for the federal agency that manages government swag buying says "there's a demand for these items" and individual agencies are expected to make sure the purchases aren't wasteful. As for all that artwork, more than 160 members of Chicago's art world have taken part in the State Department Art in Embassies program the past 13 years. Art purchases are line items in embassy construction budgets.

ABC7 received this letter from the Promotional Products Association International following the broadcast of our report.
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