VA Faces Tough Hearing On Conference Spending

Weeks after a harsh report criticizing spending at Department of Veterans Affairs conferences, a House committee told the VA to expect much-tougher oversight.

First came the report. Now comes the impact.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs—which has faced scrutiny of its 2011 training conferences similar to that trained on the General Services Administration for its Las Vegas conference—found itself in front of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Wednesday, where the topic of the day was the inspector general’s report on the Orlando conferences.

The report described $762,000 in expenses, including a parody of Gen. George S. Patton, which cost more than $50,000 to produce, and led to the resignation of at least one employee.

The hearing was notable for the strong passions it drew, with Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), the chairman of the committee, asking at one point, “Is this a boondoggle or not a boondoggle?”

Other highlights from the hearing:

A strong back-and-forth: According to The Washington Post, the hearing got particularly heated when VA Deputy Secretary W. Scott Gould suggested that the committee’s focus on an employee’s photos, posted on social media, unfairly cast the agency’s employees in a poor light. “I think that we need to think carefully when we talk about culture, that there are 320,000 hardworking employees at VA that don’t like having their reputation damaged and sullied by this kind of activity,” Gould said. The statement drew an angry rebuke from Miller.

Yes, this is one instance where more bureaucracy is necessary because it’s obvious they have no idea.

The root issues: Phillipa Anderson, assistant general counsel for the VA, claimed that the major issue the agency was facing was a lack of accountability, according to FederalNewsRadio, and that the group is working to fix this. “We decided a comprehensive policy is necessary, as well as we found a gap in identifying or having identified one individual responsible for the execution and management of conferences. So that is where we focused our development of our policy,” she said. The steps include the creation of a database to track conference spending and an approval process in cases of conferences that cost more than $20,000 to put on.

A promise of more oversight: Despite this, Miller promised a higher level of oversight in the future. “Yes, this is one instance where more bureaucracy is necessary because it’s obvious they have no idea, and we are talking about a $140 billion agency that can’t even tell us within $100 million what their conference budget is,” he said. Meanwhile, the ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Corrine Brown (FL), defended the VA, saying it should be more focused on serving veterans than on Congress, the FederalNewsRadio report stated.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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