VA Moves to Deter Future Conference Scandals

The Department of Veterans Affairs is putting new safeguards in place to prevent a repeat of financial waste and abuse linked to a pair of multi-million dollar training conferences held at a Florida resort in 2011.

The Human Resources training conferences at the Orlando World Center Marriott were lavish affairs that cost just over $6 million in all and saw VA employees accepting gifts from contractors. One senior official resigned just before a VA Inspector General’s report on the conferences was issued Sept. 30; the fates of other officials are still up in the air pending a review of their roles and activities by a panel assembled by VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

Among the safeguards will be quarterly meetings where department senior administration or staff officials will brief the VA’s chief of staff on any conferences the VA proposes to host or have its employees attend as far as 12 months out.

The agency also will require senior executives be appointed within any department or branch hosting a conference to make sure all proper steps are followed and funds are spent only in accordance with the approved program.

New VA policies aimed at preventing future abuses are noted in the IG’s published report.

Under the new conference approval system, all planned events costing more than $20,000 in funds or resources will require a concept plan that will be reviewed by the VA chief of staff at a quarterly briefing.

Proposed conferences expected to come in under the $20,000 threshold will be submitted in a lump-sum estimate.

Also, each administrative and staff office has to ensure their budget officer is engaged throughout the process.

To help make sure everything is done correctly along the way through to the end, the process will be monitored by a Conference Certifying Official and a Responsible Conference Executive designated by the department hosting the event.

According to the VA, both officials must be senior executive service or SES-level employees.

The VA also is requiring that any cost increase of 5 percent or more of an approved conference has to be authorized.

And when a conference does go off, officials now will have to complete an “after action” review to make sure everything went as it was supposed to under the VA’s new guidelines.

The greater oversight of the process should remedy some of the wasteful and questionable spending the IG highlighted in its report.

This spending included more than $10,000 for VA officials to scout the Orlando World Center Marriott in advance of the conferences. The IG also questioned more than $37,000 reimbursed to some VA employees who arrived early to the resort or stayed late, apparently to carry out support work for which the VA had already contracted, and another $43,000 in awards to VA staff for managing the conferences in light of so much mismanagement.

During the conference, VA employees also accepted gifts ranging from massages and shows to helicopter rides from contractors doing business or wanting to do business with the VA.

The VA is now going to make it clear that pre-planning site visits are unnecessary, since conference information is readily available online.

There are some exceptions, according to the VA. A site visit may be authorized by a contracting officer in some instances before a contract is awarded. And there would be a location meeting -- post-awarding of the contract -- that would include the contracting officer and others directly associated with the conference and venue to make sure everyone is on the same page.

Of the 49 separate recommendations made by the IG, the VA concurred with nearly all, including consulting with legal counsel to determine if action is warranted against officials for their roles in the over-the-top conference.

Shinseki accepted the resignation of John Sepulveda, the VA's assistant secretary for human resources, just before the public release of the IG report. Shinseki appears to have stopped short of administrative action against his VA Chief of Staff Robert Gingrich, as recommended by the IG.

In the official response to the IG recommendations, the VA makes no direct reply to the recommendation on Gingrich. The VA said Shinseki met with Gingrich and told him he had failed to ask enough questions before signing off on the conferences.

The work of the panel formed by Shinseki to review the actions of officials linked to the scandal is still underway.

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