House Report: Poor Leadership Led to VA Conference Spending Spree

In conjunction with a congressional hearing, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee released a new report this week blaming unethical behavior and lack of oversight within the Department of Veterans Affairs for wasteful spending at two of the agency’s conferences.

Officials of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs were back in the hot seat on Wednesday over reports that the agency wastefully spent nearly $762,000 of taxpayer money on two 2011 training conferences.

This time the department was before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which released a report the same day detailing the actions and events that led to a $6.1 million price tag for the two conferences.

“The committee’s investigation has revealed that this massive price tag was the direct result of spending mismanagement, unethical behavior by federal employees, and irresponsible leadership,” the report stated.

The report, which called spending on the VA conferences “strikingly similar” to spending by the General Services Administration (GSA) on its 2010 Western Regions Conference in Las Vegas, noted that there was no firm budget for the events nor any expense records kept. This led to escalating costs and an inability to calculate total expenditures.

There was also pressure among planners to create a “signature” kick-off event. “Emails show that planning for the kick-off event became so time-consuming that some employees raised concerns that they were unable to complete their regular work,” the report stated. It also noted that at some point a conference planner contacted the Washington Redskins about the possibility of the team’s cheerleaders making an appearance at the event.

“In most instances, senior leadership delegated important responsibilities for conference planning and execution to their direct reports but did not provide the appropriate level of oversight needed,” Richard Griffin, VA deputy inspector general, said during the hearing. “This hands-off approach resulted in imprudent expenditures and ethical misconduct by senior employees, conference planners, and other human resources and administration staff.”

Gina Farrisee, VA assistant secretary for human resources and administration, testified that since reports of excessive spending came to light in 2012, the VA has taken steps to improve oversight within the agency.

“After issues at the 2011 HR National Training Conferences came to light, it was clear that more needed to be done to ensure the highest standards of accountability,” said Farrisee, who outlined the agency’s new four-step conference planning process. Each step has its own objectives, metrics, and standards of execution.

In a letter sent to the committee before the hearing, ASAE President and CEO John H. Graham IV, FASAE, CAE, drew a distinction between federal and association conferences and emphasized the importance of allowing federal employees to attend association meetings.

“As you examine the issue of internal federal conferences, we ask that you note the differences between these conferences and association conferences,” Graham wrote. “For federal employees, the opportunity to interact with the private sector at association meetings and conferences is critical to the policymaking process. In every sector, a federal agency needs to hear and learn from the experts in their field, and very often those experts come together under the umbrella of a trade or professional society.”

The Orlando World Center Marriott, the site of the 2011 training meetings currently under Congressional scrutiny. (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Katie Bascuas

By Katie Bascuas

Katie Bascuas is associate editor of Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!