Published August 21, 2012
On the heels of the GSA spending scandal in Vegas, employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs are now under investigation over a pair of Orlando conferences that ran $5 million and featured a pricey video parody of the movie "Patton."
The price tag on those conferences, held last summer, far exceeds the roughly $830,000 spent by the General Services Administration in Las Vegas. The VA inspector general's office says it's been investigating since April and is preparing to release a report by next month.
The potential spending scandal sequel has now caught the eye of House oversight committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who fired off a letter to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki last week pressing the department for answers.
Issa revealed several conference details, including the claim that $52,000 was spent "to produce an 18-minute video starring a paid actor satirizing the opening scene from the movie Patton" -- the 1970 film starring George C. Scott as Gen. George Patton.
Issa questioned why the VA hired an outside group to make the video when the department "has videographers and editors on staff."
Issa also wrote that another $84,000 was spent on "promotional items such as branded pens, highlighters, hand sanitizers and USB drives."
The weeklong conferences were hosted by the Office of Human Resources. As with the GSA scandal, Issa said "waste also occurred in the pre-conference planning phase." Issa wrote that the IG found at least seven workers at VA headquarters traveled to Nashville, Dallas and Orlando before the conference to scout locations -- using taxpayer money, even though the department already had employees in each of those cities.
The House Veterans Affairs Committee is also seeking information on conference spending from the department.
The Department of Veterans Affairs claims to be cracking down on its conference policy in light of the allegations.
"Allegations of misconduct received by the VA Office of Inspector General regarding two training conferences in 2011 are unacceptable," the department said in a written statement, adding that it is cooperating with the investigation. It said Shinseki plans to "hold accountable" anyone who "misused taxpayer dollars or violated our standards of conduct."
The department has removed "purchasing authority" from all those in the unit under investigation, and it has ordered an outside review of training policies and training conferences.
An Issa spokesman said the congressman has not yet received a formal response from Shinseki. Issa is looking for contracts, receipts and other documentation including the parody video itself.
The IG's office informed Issa of the investigation after the congressman earlier this month sent a letter to IGs reminding them of their obligation to notify Congress of inquiries into "flagrant issues" at their agencies.
The IG's office confirmed it began the review in late April.
"Since then, a series of interviews have uncovered questionable activities and we have notified both the secretary and Congress of these issues," the office said in a written statement, adding that "all indications are that the conferences were for legitimate training purposes" but investigators are checking whether laws and ethics rules were followed.