VA Conference Spending Raises Questions; Investigators Seek Answers

WASHINGTON — Training human resources personnel to recruit, train and retain medical professionals and other personnel is critical to VA’s mission, but has the agency gone overboard in spending on HR training conferences?

Amid intense media coverage and public scrutiny, two key committees and the VA Inspector General are investigating the issue.

The controversy began when it came to light that VA had spent about $5 million on two human resource conferences in Orlando, FL, last year. What have especially outraged lawmakers are two short videos starring an actor impersonating the opening scenes from “Patton that was said to cost the agency $52,000, as well as an additional $84,000 spent on items such as branded pens, highlighters, sanitizers and USB drives.

What has especially outraged lawmakers is that the VA spent $52,000 for two short videos starring an actor impersonating the opening scenes from Patton. Source: House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government reform, told VA Secretary Eric Shinseki in a letter that the allegations regarding the conferences bore “eerie similarities” to the 2010 General Services Administration (GSA) conference in Las Vegas, “which included several egregious expenditures — including the hiring of a mind reader, a clown, a $31,000 reception and a team-building exercise with a $75,000 price tag.” His committee has launched an investigation into the matter.

The chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs also signaled he was unhappy with conference spending.

“To see that VA employees were treated to tens of thousands of dollars in refreshments, a $300,000 Audio Visual Center and a night of karaoke does not invoke confidence in employees who are entrusted with the nation’s monies for veterans,” Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), who chairs the committee, said in a statement. “The committee is now looking into additional conferences held during the past two years, and it is imperative that VA continue to provide information to Congress, so that we can determine the full extent of this blatant misuse of taxpayer dollars.”

The VA is not the only agency under scrutiny for conference spending. Issa also sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta seeking information on DoD conferences to determine “if expenditures were appropriate and taxpayer dollars were wasted.” Included in the list of 64 conferences on which the committee sought information is a 2010 traumatic brain injury conference in Germany and an Armed Forces obstetrics and gynecology course in Honolulu in 2009.

DoD’s letter followed letters to several other agencies about their conference spending.

“The committee has analyzed thousands of documents obtained from federal agencies and citizen watchdogs related to conference spending in the executive branch. Any conference that cost taxpayers more per person than GSA’s 2010 conference in Las Vegas raised a red flag,” Issa wrote.

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