House Republicans deride VA for non-answers on conference spending

Thursday - 11/29/2012, 5:26am EST

WFED's Jason Miller on The Federal Drive

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House Republican lawmakers are promising to crawl into every dark corner of the Veterans Affairs Department to administer oversight.

The pledge came from Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, Wednesday after he abruptly ended a committee hearing, citing the lack of substantive answers from VA officials about how much the agency spent on training conferences in 2011 and 2012.

Miller was unhappy with the responses the committee received from W. Scott Gould, VA's deputy secretary, along with Todd Grams, VA's chief financial officer, and Phillipa Anderson, the agency's assistant general counsel.

The chairman's frustration grew during the hearing as Gould's answers to an assortment of questions related to conference spending failed to satisfy him, such as how much did VA spend to send employees to conferences outside the United States and whether a $1 million contract for an event planner for a conference in Hawaii was a no-bid contract.

Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.)

"First of all, he would not answer the questions that were being asked. We've only been asking them for months and months. And to continue to say it's because of the 35,000 pages they provided for the pharmaceutical prime vendor contract, well guess what, it's because we've been asking for it over and over again," Miller said after the hearing. "I'm tired. I'm very tired of asking for information, asking for witnesses to come and testify at the committee, and being told they are not available. Asking for staff to be briefed on different issues that are important and being told they are not available to come. I will go, as chairman of this committee, anywhere, anytime to visit with a member of VA's leadership as will this staff to get answers. I'm tired of the stonewalling."

Two conferences in Orlando

The contentious hearing focused on two training conferences that took place in 2011 in Orlando, Fla., where VA's inspector general cited some $762,000 in questionable spending

The IG found VA spent about $6.1 million on the two conferences. The IG found VA employees improperly accepted gifts including room upgrades, meals, limousine services, golf, spa services, helicopter rides and tickets for the Rockettes. Auditors also found contract violations and lack of oversight led to excessive costs and illegal or wasteful expenditures.

The initial report resulted in the resignation of VA's Chief Human Capital Officer John Sepulveda. The actions of 11 other employees are under review for possible disciplinary action.

Since August, the committee made 91 requests to VA for information about conferences. Miller said VA only answered 16, leaving 75 outstanding, of which 66 are more than two weeks old or past the date the agency agreed to get the committee answers.

"In a touch of irony, VA's testimony for this hearing was almost eight hours late," he said. "We clearly have a problem and I think we all want to get to the bottom of it, both with respect to conference spending and VA's relationship with this oversight committee."

Miller said some of the blame needs to go to the White House because they give "cabinet secretaries free reign to ignore congressional oversight."

Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.), the highest ranking Democrat at Wednesday's hearing, defended VA's responses and their timeliness. She said VA should be focusing on serving veterans more so than serving Congress.

"A lot of times members talk the talk, but they don't walk the walk," Brown said. "Let's be clear, this administration put more money [in VA] in the first two years than in the history of the U.S. ... You can tell something about Congress about where they put their money."

VA responses by the numbers

Gould pushed back against the criticism that VA is not responding quickly enough.

He said VA officials have testified at more than 100 congressional hearings, responded to 1,100 congressional briefings, more than 6,000 specific policy requests and more than 3,000 questions for the record.

W. Scott Gould, deputy secretary, Department of Veterans Affairs

"We have a steady and very large flow of information to this committee and others on the Hill," Gould said. "I submit to you making sure the information is properly and accurately is paramount in our mind."

Gould said for the most part, the money for the training conferences was well spent.

VA found in 2009 human resources employees were severely lacking in 24 of 30 critical skills. Additionally, these employees had not received formal training in several years.

Gould said the difference showed almost immediately. VA surveyed supervisors of employees who attended the conference and found 78 percent said they've seen evidence that their employees used new skills or knowledge on the job after attending the conference, and 73 percent said their employees were more motivated as a result of the conference.

The problems came from a lack of accountability, not a lack of policies or procedures, said Anderson.

She said a cross-agency group reviewed the policies and came up with a new oversight approach.

"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. "Two main features of that policy are the identification of a conference certifying official. That official is Senior Executive Service level and is not to be delegated, who is responsible for exercising due diligence in the planning of the conference, presents to the undersecretary or assistant secretary and that concept is then certified and provided to the reviewer or approver of the conference."

The second part of the new policy requires VA to name a second official to be responsible and accountable for the execution and management of the conference. This is also a SES person and they are responsible for the use of purchase cards, the overall cost of the conference and assuring the contract doesn't go beyond its scope. All of these were problems detailed by the IG.

Plan is being implemented

VA created a training support office. It's also developing a database to track conference spending, requiring multi-levels of approval for conferences that cost $20,000 or more, and mandating an after action report for each conference.

Gould said these steps and others will ensure wasteful spending like what took place in Orlando doesn't happen again.

"First of all, it's a recognition that there is a problem and we have recognized that publicly," he said. "We need a plan to implement, follow through at every stage to make sure it doesn't happen again. We have such a plan. It is published and we are working to implement it now. We have to communicate effectively to our employees the tremendous responsibility that they bear and take public resources and focus on service to veterans that every step of the way our oversight processes are functioning and we are willing to follow up."

But Gould said VA has to find the right balance so the field employees are not overwhelmed by reports and paperwork.

The committee's reaction to VA's steps was mostly positive.

Miller, however, said initially VA didn't believe it needed more oversight.

"They did not want to do what they are now taking credit for doing," he said. "Last year, we asked them if they would be willing to put more oversight in place. They said it wasn't necessary so we had bills that were filed that would require it to be done. 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."

The bill Miller is talking about is H.R. 1627, the Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012.

It includes a provision requiring VA to report to Congress on any conferences costing more than $20,000 or attended by more than 50 employees. The report would cover nine areas, including per diem, lodging, rental of equipment and halls, refreshments and entertainment.

President Obama signed it into law in early August.

Miller's promise of more stringent oversight likely will start with holding Gould to his promise to get the committee answers to those 66 outstanding questions as well as new ones from the hearing, including how much money VA spent on conferences in foreign countries last year and whether VA spent $1 million for a conference planner for an event in Hawaii for aging veterans and whether that contract was a no-bid type.

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