By Sandra Basu
WASHINGTON — With a new congressional report detailing additional excesses in the VA’s past conference spending, agency officials defended efforts to eliminate those issues and put in tight financial controls.
“I have seen the policies put into place and the accountability that now exists at the department,” VA Assistant Secretary for Human Resources and Administration Gina Farrisee assured the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
During the hearing, lawmakers rehashed problems of wasteful and lavish spending at the VA’s 2011 Human Resources and Administration conference in Orlando. Those conferences cost at least $6.1 million, according to a 2012 Office of Inspector General report that also noted that this number might not include “a complete accounting for these conferences.”
In numerous past hearings, lawmakers have expressed their outrage for spending on controversial items at the conference, such as videos with a Gen. George Patton impersonator, at an estimated cost of $50,000.
“The taxpayers in this case got a lousy deal,” Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) noted last month.
A staff report released by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in October also detailed excessive spending at the Orlando conferences, noting among other things that conference planners scouting possible locations “improperly accepted gifts from hotels under consideration to host the conferences, including meals, spa treatments, gift baskets, show tickets, and limousine and helicopter rides.”
The report also pointed to a marketing budget for the conferences of $450,000. Issa questioned during the hearing why the conference planners would need to advertise a conference to its own employees, noting that the VA could have just ordered or encouraged them to attend through official channels.
When asked about the cost of putting on the Orlando conferences, VA Deputy Inspector General Richard Griffin told lawmakers that the problem was that no one was in charge and that among the three people who were supposed to be accountable there was never a single meeting to discuss the conference planning and conference costs.
“The [conference] budget that the chief of staff signed off on after that day vanished and there was no spend plan, there was no cost tracking,” he said.
Farrisee, who was not at the VA at the time of the conferences in question, also acknowledged to lawmakers that the out-of-control spending occurred due to a “lack of leadership and oversight.” She suggested that the officials in charge might not even have known everything that was occurring.
VA officials said conference policies have changed and now require more layers of approval. After approval, each conference estimated to cost more than $20,000 also requires the appointment of a second official, the responsible conference executive (RCE), to oversee the process. The RCE is responsible for ensuring the conference is executed according to the approved plan and must certify within 15 days of the completion that the conference was executed appropriately.
“I feel that the discipline is very strong in the process now,” VA Deputy Assistant Secretary for Finance Edward Murray told lawmakers.
In Farrisee’s written testimony, she described other measures to reduce wasteful spending. For example, in May 2013, VA released a revised policy containing the requirement that all travelers and officials who approve travel are required to complete travel training.
She also explained that VA has strengthened oversight of its purchase card program.
“VA policy requires training for both purchase card holders and approvers. As part of purchase card program oversight, VA’s Financial Services Center (FSC) uses recurring reports to monitor purchase cardholders and approvers’ training status,” she noted in written testimony.
Farrisee also agreed with Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX), who suggested that online training can offer an alternative mode for training when appropriate.
“We do webcasts and do other virtual blended training and we are looking in the future to do more of that training. …Training can be accomplished in other forms,” she said.
Lawmakers used visuals and props to make their case. At one point during the hearing, Issa ran a brief video clip showing VA employees dancing at what appeared to be a social event at the conference. Also during the hearing, Rep. John Mica (R-FL) displayed a large teddy bear as an example of the type of gifts VA handed out, calling it “outrageous.”
Still, lawmakers defended VA employees and said spending problems at the VA should not reflect on the hard work of medical professionals caring for veterans. Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-MA) said he has three VA medical facilities in his district and would “hate to think that the American people think that my doctors, my nurses, my staff, my therapists who are working at the VA hospitals that their service is indicative of what we are hearing today.”
“Those docs, those nurses, staff and therapists, they are working for less than what they could earn if they walked across the street and worked in a private hospital in the Boston area. There are some hospitals there that are very generous in their benefits and pay, but our VA employees, they do the right thing because they believe in their service,” he said.
Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL) complimented the services of VA medical facilities and said those facilities in his district provide “some of the best medical care in the world.”
“We certainly want to extol the virtues of those facilities and what they do,” he said.