The chairman and ranking members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee are demanding a complete accounting of where and how the Department of Veterans Affairs has spent money on employee conferences since 2009.
The latest demand comes as the committee’s senior members released additional information gleaned from a preliminary VA Inspector General’s report on two Orlando, Fla., conferences held for VA human resources employees in 2011.
Among the findings, the VA spent $52,000 producing two 8-minute videos in which an actor portraying Army Gen. George Patton laid out the role of VA human resources personnel and exhorted them to meet their mission. A shortened version of the video is available below.
The department also spent $84,000 on VA-branded promotion items, including up to $25,000 for pens, highlighters, post-it notes and hand sanitizers.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., want three years worth of data because they say past VA testimony on conference costs has been contradictory, ranging from $20 million in both 2011 and 2012, to $100 million.
In an Aug. 16 letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, they wrote the testimony suggests the VA may not have any reliable data on conference expenditures, which calls into question whether the department’s financial controls “ever existed, whether they exist now, and who should be held accountable.”
The congressmen earlier this month blasted the VA when they revealed, based on the IG findings, that the department spent anywhere from $3 million to $9 million on employee conferences in Orland, Fla.
The IG report noted that the conferences themselves were for legitimate training purposes, but that employees received improper gratuities of alcohol, gift baskets, concert tickets, embroidered pillow cases, spa treatments, stretch limo transportation and even helicopter rides.
“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,” Miller said at the time.
In their Aug. 16 letter to Shinseki, Miller and Filner cited prior testimony indicating that about $20 million was budgeted in 2011 and again in 2012 for conferences, but noted that the VA’s chief financial officer said 2011 conferences costs were “a little over $100 million.”
Even if the lower amount is accurate, Miller and Filner said, “it raises the questions about the propriety of the HR conferences in Orlando consuming anywhere from 25 to 45 percent of the VA’s entire conference budget for the year.”
The apparent over-the-top spending and allegations of employees improperly receiving gifts 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.
Shinseki said in a statement after the IG preliminary findings were made public, the actions alleged in the report were "unacceptable" and he vowed to hold accountable anyone who misused taxpayer funds or violated the department's standards of conduct.
He also said the VA had already stripped purchasing authority from employees in the work unit under investigation, and that there would be an independent review of all training policies and procedures, as well as of scheduled training conferences. Those are to be completed by mid-November.
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.