VA under investigation for excessive spending

VA comes under congressional, IG scrutiny for possible spending abuses connected to training conferences.

Questions about conference spending have moved beyond the General Services Administration. Now the Veterans Affairs Department is under investigation.

The VA Office of the Inspector General followed up on allegations it received through its OIG Hotline about 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.

The IG’s office anticipates a report by the end of September.

Just how much VA spent is unclear. Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, said VA held the conferences in Florida at a cost of approximately $9 million. However, VA officials said the cost was only about $5 million. An IG spokesperson told FCW that the office is still trying to determine the actual costs.  

Miller said VA officials took multiple planning trips to several destinations, citing preliminary findings from the IG. Findings also show VA employees received gifts, including alcohol, concert tickets, and spa treatments. The department spent thousands of dollars on promotional items for attendees, Miller said, although he didn’t include an exact dollar amount.

“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 in a statement. He’s also authorized his committee to offer the IG its assistance in determining the extent of allegations and ensuring the law is strictly enforced.

Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.), ranking member of the committee, said on Aug. 14 that VA officials could be asleep at the switch with this kind of spending.

“I question the need to spend so many resources on these conferences and question the lack of management oversight at the VA that allowed questionable activities and questionable spending to occur in the first place,” he said.

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. VA Secretary Eric 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.

VA officials also directed ethics training for all department employees involved with the planning and conducting training conferences. Contracting specialists will have recertifications too, officials said.

While the IG stated that the conferences were for legitimate training purposes, “our department is committed to reducing conference and overall travel costs. Consistent with the administration’s existing directives that agencies eliminate wasteful spending, the Department of Veterans Affairs will continue to ensure that taxpayer money is properly used for workforce training and conferences that enable the best support to veterans,” according to the VA’s statement.

Conference spending has grabbed a lot of congressional attention lately. In April, GSA underwent a shakeup after the agency IG issued a scathing report about the 2010 Western Regions Conference in Las Vegas. The conference, held in a swanky hotel, cost GSA $822,000. Then, an awards ceremony for GSA employees in 2010, became the subject of another congressional hearing.

GSA’s acting administrator Dan Tangherlini, who took office after Administrator Martha Johnson resigned over the report on the Las Vegas conference, has had an ongoing top-down review of the agency’s spending underway.

As for VA officials, President Barack Obama Aug. 6 signed into law the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act (H.R. 1627). Under provisions in that bill, VA officials have to report to Congress quarterly about conference spending, providing details of parking costs, entertainment, per diem payments, and more. Officials have to include in the reports information on conferences that more than 50 VA employees attend or if the conference has an estimated cost for the VA exceeding $20,000.

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