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The chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee blasted VA officials at the end of a contentious hearing Wednesday declaring the "truce is over" after the Congressional committee ripped VA leaders for more frivolous spending on VA "boondoogles."
The Department of Veterans Affairs can likely expect a blizzard of demands for information from lawmakers after House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller ripped VA leadership for holding back information.
The normally businesslike tone of the hearing took a turn for the contentious after Deputy VA Secretary W. Scott Gould defended the agency against suggestions made earlier by Miller that the agency may have picked up the tab for a European junket in 2010.
Miller displayed the photos, captured from an official VA Facebook page, early in the hearing, and posed the question whether it was a boondoggle.
Late in the hearing, Gould pushed back in defense of VA workers, saying he had learned by "doing a little bit of investigating while I've been sitting here" that the photos were personal vacation images. Though they should not have been posted to a VA Facebook page, he said, there was no VA money spent in connection with the Italy trip.
"What was implied [by the photos] is that something untoward happened here," Gould said. "I think when we need to take care here, when we talk about culture, that there are 320,000 hardworking employees at the VA who don't like their reputation damaged, and sullied by this kind of activity."
Gould, who hit the table for emphasis as he spoke, then found himself and the VA in Miller's crosshairs.
"Your response in the last 15 minutes has just raised … the hackles on the back of my neck," Miller said. After reminding Gould they had met on Tuesday for a civil discussion about how to move forward on the issues the lawmakers want to know about, Miller said "the truce is over. It lasted less than 24 hours."
"Expect much more oversight from this committee. Don't you ever accuse a Democrat or a Republcian on this committee of slapping any of the 300,000 VA employees," Miller said. "Rest assured – it's the leadership that we are concerned with."
The personal vacation photos of became the focus of the hearing when lawmakers used them to inquire if the VA was funding European junkets.
Michael Rabdau, Veterans Canteen Services Washington liaison officer, took the photos during a 2010 vacation to Italy and posted them on the official agency Facebook page to share with friends and colleagues, Military.com learned.
But the photos came to the attention of the Miller's committee, whose members have been fuming for months over wasteful spending by VA at a pair of Florida conferences that cost more than $6 million.
Miller said the committee now wants to know what overseas trips the VA has funded, who went and for what purpose. He referred to the Italy photos on the Veterans Canteen Services Facebook page.
"One of the things that bothers me the most was the post that said …. ‘Tough trip,' and the [administrator] response is, ‘Research is tough, but someone has to do it.' "
"Is this a boondoggle or not a boondoggle?" Miller asked.
Outside the meeting hall after the hearing, Rep. Corinne Brown, D-Fla., slammed the committee's GOP leadership for how it handled the question of the photos. Had Miller given the information to the committee Democrats, their own staffs could have looked into them before the hearing, she said.
"But they prefer to play ‘gotcha politics,'" Brown said.
Getting to the bottom of the photos was not difficult. Military.com located the Facebook page during the hearing. The page administrator responded within minutes to a FB message that "the trip was a personal vacation not sponsored or funded by VA or VCS [Veterans Canteen Services].
"The individual that managed this page back then posted pictures that they thought the VCS might be interested in."