Conference costs draw congressional ire

GSA's conference scandal was just the start. Now a dozen agencies are being asked to defend their spending on conferences.

What began as a dramatic but seemingly isolated scandal over wasteful conference spending at the General Services Administration has expanded to include a dozen agencies.

First attention turned to the Department of Veterans Affairs for two 2011 conferences held in Florida that cost millions of dollars. Then in mid-August, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, asked for details on 153 conferences held by a total of 10 agencies. The Defense Department accounted for 64 of them.

Issa took the $3,000-per-person cost of the GSA's 2010 conference in Las Vegas as a benchmark and looked for conferences that cost the government more than that. However, some FCW readers expressed skepticism about Issa’s motives.

“I'm sure that they may find some cost abuse or at least something to question,” one reader commented. “However, there are required checks already in place for conference costs. Have those processes been ignored, or are the processes working but none of the findings have been newsworthy up until now?”

Issa seems to be particularly interested in DOD’s activities. In an Aug. 22 letter, he called on Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to furnish further information on specific conferences that took place between December 2006 and September 2011. Many were held stateside, including in or near Washington, D.C., but others took place in foreign locales, including Burkina Faso, Thailand, Belize and various parts of South America and Europe.

‘Patton’ homage gets defenders

Another recently cited example of allegedly wasteful spending earned some support from FCW readers. As Reps. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) and Bob Filner (D-Calif.) — chairman and ranking member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, respectively — investigated the VA conferences in question, they released a YouTube link to a VA training video featuring an actor parodying an iconic scene from the classic film “Patton,” along with a strongly worded press release criticizing VA for spending $52,000 to make the video.

“The artificial furor over this conference video gives us even more evidence (as if we needed it), that any investigation can go too far," wrote Richard Warren, a project management team leader at the Environmental Protection Agency, in commenting on the FCW article. “This video sets a professional tone and is presented in a manner that is both efficient and memorable. The quality of the videography, lighting, sound and editing [was] professional throughout, and the cost was far from unreasonable for the likely effects it caused as part of a much larger investment in time — all of which appears to have been very mission-focused.”

IG promises findings

VA’s Office of Inspector General is also investigating the conferences, which included $84,000 spent on promotional items such as pens and flash drives with VA’s logo. The IG’s office said it got involved in April after it received tips through its hotline.

The American Legion’s “BurnPit” blog post on the investigation included the organization’s perspective and quoted American Legion National Commander Fang Wong as saying: “At a time when everyone in the federal government is cutting back due to the budget deficit, it is unseemly to hear of conferences in a resort town and money spent on activities that don’t seem central to VA’s core mission. I don’t know how much is too much for a conference for the second largest department of the federal government, but this seems excessive, especially for a nation at war and with VA losing ground on a backlog of nearly 1 million undecided benefits claims.”

The IG’s office plans to issue its report by the end of September.

VA and Congress enact reforms

VA’s top leaders apparently agreed with their IG and congressional critics. On Aug. 14, they said they have revoked the purchasing authority of any employee in the office who is under investigation by the IG. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has directed an outside, independent review of all training policies and procedures, which should be finished later this fall. And when the committee called attention to the video, VA officials quickly issued a statement agreeing it should not have been made, and have mandated ethics training for all department employees who plan and conduct training conferences.

Under provisions in the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act, signed into law in early August, VA officials must report to Congress quarterly about conference spending, providing details of parking costs, entertainment, per diem payments and more. The reports must include information on conferences that more than 50 VA employees attend or whose estimated costs for VA exceed $20,000.

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