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VA event costs raise fed lawmakers’ hackles

Officials for the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs (VA) are facing extreme scrutiny for potential waste of taxpayer dollars for two events held in Orlando last year as well as continued financial waste with no apparent accountability.

“Without a doubt, this appears to be a systemic problem at the VA, and using the figures based in today’s report, it can be reasonably concluded that 10 to 15 percent of the VA’s conference spending is wasteful, amounting to $10-15 million a year, at the least,” said Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. “I am calling on the VA to review these findings and take appropriate action, especially at the senior management level.”

A report by the VA’s Inspector General states some $6.1 million was spent on two human resources conferences held last year in Orlando and conducted by the VA, which falsely reported $5.1 million in costs for the two events. The report also indicates VA employees illegally accepted gifts, including free room upgrades, spa services, limousine rides, golf outings, meals, show tickets and other improprieties. Government purchase cards also were used improperly, and the VA spent nearly $100,000 on frivolous promotional items, such as bags, pens and water bottles, that the inspector general deems “unnecessary and wasteful.”

Contractual violations and a lack of oversight resulted in illegal or wasteful expenses paid for by U.S. taxpayers, the report states.

Among specifics cited are more than $112,000 on promotional items, nearly $50,000 spent on a video parody of the film “Patton” and more than $43,000 in cash rewards to people planning the two conferences. About $762,000 in taxpayer funds spent on the two events are being questioned by Miller and others.

Compounding the matter, VA officials have provided conflicting reports on annual conference costs by testifying the VA spent about $20 million on conferences during 2011 and budgeted more than $22 million for 2012. But VA officials later stated that conference costs topped $100 million during 2011 and had gone up from $92 million in 2009.

The conflicting amounts reported also suggest the VA has no reliable information regarding its expenditures and very well might have no fiscal oversight whatsoever, Miller and Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.), said in an Aug. 16 letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

Miller and Filner are trying to get straight answers from the VA and want to know whether any oversight exists regarding department expenditures and just who ultimately is responsible for how funds are spent. They also recommend the VA’s chief of staff, John R. Gingrich, be fired.

“Accountability begins at the top. In this instance, the VA chief of staff cavalierly approved an exorbitant conference budget under the guise of a process meant to safeguard against that very occurrence,” said Miller and Filner in the letter Shinseki. “A message must be sent to all VA employees that perfunctory execution of so great a responsibility is inexcusable at any time and at any level. Mr. Gingrich’s removal as chief of staff is the unequivocal way to deliver that message of accountability.”

While Miller and Filner want Gingrich removed as well as answers for the high costs, another lawmaker says the situation has become too common with the VA.

“The blatant waste of taxpayer dollars and government employees improperly accepting gifts cannot and will not be tolerated,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chair, U.S. Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “The IG report highlights failures in areas that have continually been problems for VA, including contracting and human resources. I expect the department to act quickly to address these longstanding shortcomings.”

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