Congressmen from both sides of the aisle have ripped the Department of Veterans Affairs for spending at least $3 million on two training conferences in Florida last year where VA employees allegedly received gifts of watches, concert tickets, and spa treatments.
The conferences and their costs are detailed in VA Inspector General's report due out in September, but House Veterans Affairs Committee leaders already are questioning VA leaders after those same officials have begged Congress for additional funding.
"If the results of the IG investigation are upheld, this represents an egregious misuse of funds meant to provide for the care of America's veterans," committee chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said in a blistering statement Monday.
Democrats have also levied criticism at the VA. Ranking member Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., on Tuesday doubted the need to spend so much on the conferences and questioned the management at VA that allowed the expenditures in the first place.
"I take very seriously the allegations that VA improperly spent taxpayer dollars and I believe that the individuals involved should be held fully accountable," he said in a statement.
The HR conferences, entitled "Innovative Solutions for a Strategic Workforce," were held in mid-July and mid-August at the Marriott World Center in Orlando.
Some reports indicate the VA spent $5 million on the pair of conferences but had already appropriated another $4 million for additional programs. Filner put the amount spent between $3 million and $9 million.
The training programs now under the IG microscope were held last July and August. The IG was tipped off about the excessive costs and gift-giving through its hotline and began its investigation in April. That's when members of the HVAC were notified, according to Filner.
Allegations over these expensive conferences come as Congress has criticized the VA for failing to address veterans' disability claims or get veterans medical care in a timely fashion. Some veterans have reported waiting more than two years for their claims to be processed by the VA.
The VA is currently waiting for congressional approval for a $140 billion budget for 2013, a budget that is set to largely escape any forced sequestration cuts because Congress specifically pushed to exempt it from the "Doomsday" mechanism lawmakers adopted last year.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, in his own statement on the investigation, called actions alleged in the IG report "unacceptable" and vowed to hold accountable anyone who misused taxpayer funds or violated the department's standards of conduct.
Without naming anyone, Shinseki said the VA already has taken action to strip purchasing authority from any employee in the work unit that is under investigation. He also said there would be an independent review of all training policies and procedures, as well as of scheduled training conferences, completed in 90 days.
All VA personnel involved with the planning and carrying out training conferences and with the recertification of contract specialists will also be required to undergo ethics training, Shinseki said.
IG officials said the conferences themselves were for legitimate training purposes, according to a statement released Tuesday. Through a series of interviews the IG said it "uncovered questionable activities" and notified VA leadership and Congress.
The IG team is reviewing "conference expenditures for compliance with government laws and regulations, the reasonableness and oversight of these expenditures, and whether actions taken by VA staff were in compliance with government ethics and rules of behavior," according to the statement. IG officials plan to finish the report by the end of September.
Miller said the lavish conferences took place only a month after VA officials testified before his committee that more stringent oversight regarding conference expenditures was unnecessary. The VA's position at the time was that stronger oversight would "impose burdensome notification and reporting requirements on the department," Miller said in his statement yesterday.
Despite the VA's argument that existing checks and balances were sufficient, the committee and ultimately Congress voted in favor of more oversight.
"The legislation under debate that day is now law," Miller said.
The IG investigation into the VA training programs is only the latest instance of a federal agency to come under scrutiny for lavish and questionable spending on employee conferences.
Congress has been investigating the General Services Administration since April after a GSA IG investigation concluded that the agency's $800,000 employee training program in Las Vegas was nothing more than a junket. There are now reports that as many as 77 GSA conferences are being investigated.