By Sandra Basu
W. Scott Gould
WASHINGTON — In a contentious hearing, members of a House committee accused the VA of being too slow in responding to congressional questions about conference spending and of repeatedly changing estimates of how much was actually spent on meetings in 2011.
Members of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs were not placated by testimony from Deputy Secretary for Veterans Affairs W. Scott Gould about VA’s new policy to control conference spending. Among other provisions, it consists of four phases for conference development to assure new standards are met and, when conference estimates exceed more than $20,000, requires the appointment of a Responsible Conference Executive to certify that the conference was executed within 5% of the planned budget.
“I am confident that these new policies will improve accountability,” Gould said.
The hearing was the latest on VA’s conference allocations in the wake of two 2011 HR conferences in Orlando, which lawmakers have cited for excessive spending. Those conferences cost at least $6.1 million, according to a September OIG report, which cautioned that number might not include “a complete accounting for these conferences.”
Members of Congress also have been incensed that the conferences included controversial items, such as videos with a Patton impersonator, at an estimated cost of $50,000.
The committee’s chairman, Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), expressed frustration that the committee could not be certain how much VA spent on conferences in 2011 and is having trouble getting its questions answered accurately and in a timely fashion.
“Unfortunately, lengthy delays or not responding to requests at all has become the norm,” Miller said.
“When we tallied up the total VA conference expenditures for FY2011 based on the information VA provided it came to $86.5 million,” he added. “This represents the fourth answer provided to the committee for VA conference spending in FY 2011: First $20 million; then over $100 million; then no reliable number. Then the number that we came up with is $86.5 million.”
Moreover, Miller said that of the 91 total requests made by the committee to VA by letter, email, over the phone, or in meetings regarding its conference spending, VA has so far only answered 16 of the requests.
W. Todd Grams, executive-in-charge for VA’s Office of Management Chief Financial Officer, told the committee that $86.5 million is the best estimate that VA has for its 2011 conference costs. In the past, VA has not been asked to add up all of its conference costs from various accounts but will do that moving forward, he said.
For his part, Gould responded that VA has provided a “constant flow of information” to the committee. He rattled off a variety of statistics, such as that VA officials have testified at more than 100 congressional hearings, responded to 1,100 congressional briefings and provided formal responses for 6,000 specific policy requests, as well as more than 3,000 congressional questions.
“There [are] a range of inquiries we get from your committee, and others on the Senate side as well, and in the effort to provide accurate information and do it well we often run into time delays, and that is the sole reason for our delay here,” he said.
Despite those explanations, committee members expressed dissatisfaction with the timeliness of response to their inquiries.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS) said it has been 106 days since he first presented VA with series of questions, including a list of the attendees at the Orlando conferences, a list of individuals involved in planning these conferences and the names of who are being held accountable.
“Why have you refused to answer all of these?” Huelskamp asked Gould.
Huelskamp added, “It’s about a gentleman in Syracuse, Kansas, who had to drive 522 miles to the nearest VA hospital. In that time, you could fly folks to Orlando for a great conference. And you won’t even tell the American people who attended?”
In another issue, the committee said it had made several requests since August regarding foreign travel made by VA employees during the past three years.
At the hearing, photos from Italy posted on the VA Canteen Service’s Twitter feed and Facebook page were posted on a screen, as was an accompanying comment: “Research is tough but someone has to do it.”
“Is this a boondoggle or not a boondoggle?” Miller asked.
Gould initially said he was not aware of the photos in question but noted later in the hearing that VA personnel need to engage with others worldwide to improve care for veterans.
“We have a community of physicians that are renowned across the world as leaders in their field,” he said. “We spend half a billion dollars a year in research and development, and we are smart enough to know that there are other smart folks out there in other countries that may have insights, suggestions and scientific advances that can help us serve our veterans more effectively.”
The Italy photos, which were removed from VA’s website within minutes of Miller showing them in the hearing room, were discussed again towards the end of the hearing.
By then, Gould said he had learned that the photos were part of a personal trip not funded by VA and should not have been put on VA’s website. He chided the committee for insinuating earlier in the hearing that the pictures might have been from a VA-funded trip and that something “untoward had happened.”
“I hope you understand that putting that kind of information out is a slap at the employees who work at VA every day,” Gould said.
This prompted an angry response from Miller, who said he has never “slapped” any of the VA employees but instead faults VA leadership. Miller said he and Gould had a civil conversation the day before but that, now, the “truce is over” before slamming the gavel to end the hearing.
“Expect much more oversight from this committee,” Miller declared.