VA cracks down on conference spending

The Veterans Administration has set new rules intended to prevent a repeat of the conference spending probe that culminated in its top human resources officer's resignation.

Following a new inspector general’s audit of two conferences held in 2011, the Veterans Affairs Department has enacted numerous tactics to check spending, root out misconduct by employees and keep senior officials involved in conference planning.

One key control is a new requirement that a senior executive must approve all proposed conferences or training sessions, the department said in a statement Oct. 1.

The undersecretary, assistant secretary or similarly-ranked VA official has to give approval for a conference proposal with project costs reaching to $100,000. If the expected costs exceed $100,000, the deputy secretary and the chief of staff must approve. Conferences with a bill expected to exceed $500,000 are generally prohibited, unless the VA secretary gives a waiver. As an additional check, officials must do an “After Action Review” following the conference to compare proposed costs to actual costs.

VA officials issued conference-related guidance Sept. 26 to address problems the IG’s investigation uncovered, and set up acquisition rules and quarterly reports on conferences. Starting this month, the VA will begin a Conference Planning and Execution Briefing Cycle, during which each administration and staff office will be responsible for briefing the chief of staff quarterly on any anticipated conferences the VA proposes to host or co-host, or that VA employees will attend during the upcoming year. The chief of staff will also host additional meetings to deal with planning and authorizing conferences expected to cost more than $20,000.

The briefing meeting is part of a new four-step planning process:

    • First is the concept phase, in which planners develop their proposal and present it at the quarterly conference planning meeting.
    • Next, in the development phase, planners draft their business case.
    • In the execution phase, the conference is planned for and held.
    • Lastly, in the reporting phase, officials check to make sure event planners followed all policies and also conduct the After Action Review.

In large part, VA officials are setting up policies to save money and avoid waste. To cut costs, VA officials will clarify in acquisition policy that pre-planning site visits are unnecessary for market research, because the conference information is online or available to officials. In other words, “no travel will be undertaken prior to conference approval,” VA officials wrote to the IG in the report.

As the planning process continues, offices must notify the approving official if costs climb more than 5 percent over the initial budget. Even more approvals are necessary if costs go higher than that, according to the department’s response to IG report recommendations.

VA officials created two new supervisory roles. Each VA office must appoint a senior executive official to be responsible for certifying conferences  and another executive as a “responsible conference executive.” The RCE is to ensure the VA does not pay for entertainment, such as videos, motivational speakers, or the purchase of “SWAG,” or “Stuff We All Get.” In the conferences under investigation, the IG found that VA employees improperly accepted room upgrades, meals, limousine services, golf, spa services, helicopter rides, and tickets for the Rockettes.

The IG’s probe concerns two human resources conferences that VA held in Orlando in 2011, which has led to employees being put on administrative leave and the chief human capital officer’s  resignation. Auditors found waste and mismanagement adding up to a price tag of roughly $6.1 million for the two conferences. Conference  planning was marred by leadership failures and ethical lapses, the IG reported Oct. 1. 

The investigation has led to the resignation of John Sepulveda, VA’s assistant secretary for human resources and administration and CHCO. The IG found that Sepulveda failed to provide proper guidance to senior executives in his organization related to the conferences.

Before the report came out, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki made changes to policies related to conference planning and attendance.

“Secretary Shinseki has taken immediate action to address the issues outlined in the IG report to strengthen oversight, improve accountability, safeguard taxpayer dollars and help ensure such incidents do not occur again,” the department said in a statement released Oct. 1. Along with policy changes, Shinseki launched two internal investigations, one looking at VA training and the second looking at conference planning policies.

In a statement reacting to the IG report, the House Veterans Affairs Committee’s top members also chastised VA’s leadership for allowing the conference waste.

“This sort of funny money accounting must stop and will no longer be tolerated, especially in today’s tight fiscal climate,” said committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.). “Using the figures based in today’s report, it can be reasonably concluded that 10 to 15 percent of VA’s conference spending is wasteful, amounting to $10 to 15 million a year, at the least.”

He also called on the VA to take appropriate action, especially at the senior management level.

Despite Shinseki’s Sept. 26 guidance, Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.), the committee’s ranking member, said in his own statement that the revamped policies “will only be effective if management and leadership is held accountable, and if they approach spending taxpayer dollars with the same care and attention they would approach spending their own resources.”

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