Veterans Agency Under Fire for Excessive Conference Spending

November 5, 2013
COFFMAN:  Every dollar wasted on lavish a dollar not being spent on caring for our veterans

COFFMAN: Every dollar wasted on lavish conferences…is a dollar not being spent on caring for our veterans

WASHINGTON — More than a year after the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs was found to have spent at least $6 million for two conferences at a high-end Florida resort, the agency has failed to carry out half of the recommendations Congress asked it to undertake.

The agency’s mortal sin in the eyes of lawmakers has been failing to publish and disseminate a handbook that would tell employees which items they are allowed and not allowed to purchase.

The VA had said it would publish the manual last spring and summer, according to a report from the agency’s inspector general.

The delay has prompted exhortations from members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to step up its pace.

“We see this as the urgency of now,” Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said last Wednesday.

A spokeswoman for VA did not return a phone call for comment.

“Every dollar wasted on lavish conferences, which are no more than vacations at the taxpayers’ expense, by the VA is a dollar not being spent on caring for our veterans,” said Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Aurora), a Marine Corps combat veteran.

“My subcommittee will continue working with the VA to make sure that these excessive expenditures on conferences have stopped so that our tax dollars are going for our veterans,” said Coffman, who is Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

Coffman’s likely Democratic opponent in 2014, Andrew Romanoff, did not return two phone calls.

The agency’s budget for conferences has attracted the notice of Congress as well. According to a report from the Republican staff members of the House Oversight panel, spending rose to $79 million last year to $35 million in 2008.

VA officials have acknowledged they had not been diligent stewards of taxpayer dollars for two conferences for 1,800 of its 4,000 human-resource employees in July and August of 2011 at the World Center Marriott in Orlando, Fla.

Last September, the agency’s inspector general concluded that while the employee training conferences had been for legitimate purposes, the VA had spent $762,000 in taxpayer dollars that had been “unauthorized, unnecessary, or wasteful.”

Eleven VA officials who helped organize the conference were found to have accepted gifts improperly from government contractors or potential contractors. One official’s haul was notable.

Jolisa Dudley, an executive assistant in the personnel office, was found to have accepted a $115 massage, a $76 stretch limo ride, and a $110 helicopter tour of a prospective site for the conferences.

The agency’s oversight at the conferences were not deemed to be more careful. According to the House Oversight Committee report, many VA employees skipped all or parts of the training sessions to attend local tourist attractions, including Walt Disney World Resort, also known as Disney World, which is less than two miles away.

Several VA officials resigned in the wake of the scandal. Those officials include John U. Sepulveda, the assistant secretary for human resources and John R. Gingrich, the chief of staff to Secretary Eric K. Shinseki.

The VA’s inspector general recommended the agency undertake 49 steps to account for its use of taxpayer money more effectively. Twenty six have not been completed fully.

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