Veterans' Affairs Committee chairmen criticize costly conferences

The inspector general of the VA is investigating allegations of wasteful spending and improper acceptance of gifts during two human resources training conferences, held in Orlando, Fla., last summer.

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The combined cost of the two conferences was estimated at $5 million. Murray said she and the committee she chairs — the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee — would keep an eye on the investigation as it progresses.

“Waste of taxpayer money is unacceptable, but it is especially egregious when it was intended to be used to support and care for our veterans,” Murray said. “I will be monitoring this issue closely as the investigation continues.”

The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said preliminary findings showed that VA employees received gifts, including alcohol, concert tickets and spa treatments. Miller said “tens of thousands of dollars were spent on promotional items for attendees.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs said it is committed to reducing conference and overall travel costs and has provided ethics training for all those involved in the planning of the conferences in question. 

"While the Inspector General has stated that the conferences were for legitimate training purposes, that would not excuse the misconduct or poor judgment that is alleged of even a few individuals," the VA Department said in the statement.

"We will continue to do everything we can to cut costs while training our employees as required to ensure Veterans receive the benefits they have earned and deserve. We acknowledge that quality training remains an essential component of quality health care and benefits services.”

Miller said that shortly before the 2011 conferences, VA officials tried to get out of new disclosures of high-cost conferences.

“In a twist of irony, a month before these conferences took place VA officials testified before the Committee that more stringent oversight regarding conference expenditures was unnecessary,” Miller said in a statement. “According to VA’s testimony, attempts to strengthen oversight of VA conferences would ‘impose burdensome notification and reporting requirements on the Department.’ [The] VA then went on to tout its existing process of checks and balances as sufficient. The legislation under debate that day is now law.”

Miller noted that President Obama signed H.R. 1627 into law earlier this month. A provision in the law instructs the VA to report to Congress any conferences that cost more than $20,000 as a way to protect funds that are supposed to be used to help veterans.

The inspector general’s report on the VA conferences is expected in September. 

“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. “The Office of the Inspector General is continuing its investigation, and I have authorized the Committee to offer its full assistance to the IG’s office in determining the extent of these allegations, as well as to ensure that the new law is strictly enforced at VA.”

The allegations of the VA misusing funds for conferences comes after the General Services Administration spent more than $800,000 — a fraction of the alleged costs of the VA conferences being investigated — on a 2010 conference for GSA employees in Las Vegas. That report quickly led to the firing of top GSA officials.

This article was updated at 5:10 p.m. to include comments from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

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