Senator not done questioning VA on conference costs

Having been briefed already by Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki regarding excessive spending on training conferences, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has more questions.

In a letter sent the day of Shinseki’s briefing -- Aug. 10 -- the ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee requested the spending details on two VA training conferences held in Orlando, Fla., in 2011, and an analysis of how the costs compare to similar VA conferences. She’s also asking if the planners of the two conferences plan other conferences.

“At a time when so many veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are in need of care and assistance, the VA must make every effort to spend each dollar in support of its important mission,” Collins wrote. The letter was released Aug. 17.

While it is apparent that VA spent more than was reasonable on the conferences, it's not at all clear just how much that was. Estimates range from $3 million to $9 million, according to Reps. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) and Bob Filner (D-Calif.), who are the chairman and ranking member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

A VA spokesman said Aug. 14 that the department estimates the amount to be about $5 million.

The VA Office of the Inspector General followed up on allegations it received through its OIG Hotline about the human resources training conferences held in July and August 2011, according to a statement from the IG. Officials have been investigating since April.

“Since then, a series of interviews have uncovered questionable activities and we have notified both the secretary and Congress of these issues,” the IG said. “To date, all indications are that the conferences were for legitimate training purposes.”

The IG’s staff is reviewing conference expenditures for compliance with government laws and regulations and whether VA employees complied with ethics and rules of behavior. In addition, the IG is checking on the reasonableness of the costs and how well they were overseen.

In her letter to the secretary, Collins urged that VA officials punish its responsible employees if there are abuses.

“Should these allegations prove true, I expect to see that those responsible are held accountable and the implementation of immediate corrections to prevent such abuses in the future,” she wrote. She also asked the secretary to keep her informed on issues relating to conference spending, training costs, and reforms to prevent similar concerns.

Shinseki said he started making changes after learning of the allegations.

On Aug. 14, VA officials said they have removed the purchasing authority of any employee in the office that is under investigation by the IG, while the investigation is ongoing. Shinseki has directed an outside, independent review of all training policies and procedures, as well as the training conferences. The review should be finished by later this fall, he said.

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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Reader comments

Mon, Aug 27, 2012 OccupyIT

The VA, along with GSA and OPM, remain ego-driven islands of bad behavior that are not accountable to anyone. If this administration truly wanted to make a difference and restore confidence in our civil services that would do the right thing and publicly hold people accountable. Sadly, one of the only things worse then senior management empire building is a government run witch hunt. It usually falls prey to the same weaknesses that enabled the root cause - political decision making, mediocre execution, and a procedural ADD that is worse than a 16 year old boy with no sleep. They wander off and wind up hanging a GS-11 for failing to file something in triplicate once the politicals whisper in their ear, "These aren't the droids we're looking for". Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain... Let's see some real accountability!

Wed, Aug 22, 2012

The VA ALWAYS comes back to the table with the reviewing of policies! NOOOOOOOOOO! There needs to be some employees & MANAGEMENT OFFICIALS losing their jobs and being severely reprimanded, that’s how this type of behavior is deterred! It's not rocket science, but Management 101!

Wed, Aug 22, 2012

In FY 2010 & FY 2011, Sr Level Management's Bonuses totalled a WHOPPING $3.5 Billion + annually.

Wed, Aug 22, 2012

Our facility received FOIAs on this very subject and our management officials outright lied that we had not hosted conferences. Wow! So much for that mandatory 'ETHICS' training, let alone morals! What happened to the motto management uses in front of company, "It's all about the Vets!" YEAH RIGHT!

Wed, Aug 22, 2012

The 5 million is a drop in the bucket compared to the gaming that is done on VA reporting to increase executive career field bonuses. About 14 million was paid out in bonuses based on fraudulent reporting. Did you know that over 95% of veterans are seen within 2 weeks, in all areas. There are no appointments available for months, but amazingly, all the veterans wanted to be seen when there is an appointment available. The trick is they never ask, they just put the appointment in, and send a letter to the Veteran. The clerks have to pull an MCAR report daily to show if they accidentally made an appointment outside the two week window, and if they did, to fix it by changing the "patients desired date" to fit. The bonuses are directly tied to this measure. The gaming is not limited to this, and is rampant throughout the VA. Don't bother with the OIG, they've confirmed this in more than one investigation, and the practice continues.

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