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.

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