Congressman pledges to hold hearings on VA conference spending

Monday - 8/20/2012, 11:48am EDT

Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman, House Veterans Affairs Committee

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This story was updated at 1:45 p.m. to include comments from VA.

Spa treatments, concert tickets, plus helicopter and stretch limo rides — the initial details in a Veterans Affairs' Office of the Inspector General investigation could overshadow the General Services Administration conference spending scandal.

A House lawmaker said Monday a preliminary investigation by the VA inspector general revealed two VA training conferences last year in Orlando cost the agency $5 million. In comparison, the GSA conference that set off a series of congressional inquiries cost about $820,000.

Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.)

Conference attendees received lavish gifts, and "those were just the beginning, I'm afraid, of the iceberg of potentially harmful things with both of these conferences," said Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, in an interview with The Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp.

With the elections in November, the time the Veterans Affairs Committee has available to hold hearings on the two VA conferences is "pretty constrained," Miller said.

"Maybe we can take some time during the lame duck session to have an opportunity to review this. The committee will in fact hold hearings on it. It's a matter of whether we can do it before the end of the year," he said.

The conferences provided human resources training and took place in July and August 2011. A review of the conferences began in April 2012, according to an OIG statement.

The full OIG report will be released in late September, according to the OIG statement.

"We are reviewing conference expenditures for compliance with government laws and regulations, the reasonableness and oversight of these expenditures, and whether actions taken by VA staff were in compliance with government ethics and rules of behavior," the OIG statement said.

The VA said in a statement that the agency is removing the purchasing authority of employees in the work unit under investigation. Secretary Eric Shinseki has also called for an outside independent review within 90 days of all training policies and conferences.

The IG has stated the two conferences under investigation were for "legitimate training purposes," VA said. The agency added that the allegations the IG makes are "unacceptable."

Miller acknowledged the need to train personnel, particularly in dealing with issues like the disability claims backlog. But, he added, "In these times of fiscal constraints, spending millions of dollars on a conference probably is not the best allocation of funds."

Even before the OIG's preliminary findings, Miller said he had requested details on how much VA spent on conferences. In one committee hearing, the VA said it budgeted $20 million for conferences, but testimony in another hearing indicated the conference budget was as much as $100 million.

"That's an awful lot of money to be spending on conferences when you can do it much more efficiently through teleconferencing or webcasting or any of the other things, without bringing all the people together in one central location," Miller said.

Earlier this month, President Obama signed into law a bill Miller sponsored that would require agencies to report any conference attended by 50 people or more and that cost at least $20,000.

VA had opposed the legislation because it said checks were already in place to prevent excessive spending at conferences, Miller said.

"Obviously, that didn't happen," he said.

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