Published August 24, 2012
Nearly $100,000 worth of "coffee break refreshments" was among the itemized expenses revealed Friday from two controversial Veterans Affairs conventions, whose combined price tag topped $5 million.
The House Committee on Veterans Affairs released a list of expenditures from one of the conferences held in Orlando, Fla. The biggest expense of the $2.9 million event was participant travel, which cost $1.2 million. But the VA Department also spent $113,000 on staff travel, $863 on a "karaoke night" and $52,000 on the "Patton-style" video that surfaced earlier this week.
A follow-up conference cost an additional $2.4 million, though the committee didn't release itemized expenses from that event.
“As we learn more about these conferences, I am more and more concerned about the clear lack of leadership, accountability, and transparency at VA," Rep. Jeff Miller, the committee chairman, said in a written statement. "To see that VA employees were treated to tens of thousands of dollars in refreshments, a $300,000 Audio Visual Center and a night of Karaoke does not invoke confidence in employees who are entrusted with the nation’s monies for veterans."
"Some of this material should have never been produced and misuse of taxpayer funds is completely unacceptable. These events took place over a year ago and we have already adopted new rules that reflect our continuing commitment to safeguarding tax dollars," the Department of Veteran Affairs said in another statement with regard to the video content used during training conferences.
The price tag on those conferences far exceeds the roughly $830,000 spent by the General Services Administration at a 2010 Las Vegas conference, a lavish affair that drew outrage on Capitol Hill.
The House Veterans Affairs Committee and Oversight and Government Reform Committee both are looking into the conferences. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, also fired off a letter to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki earlier this month posing questions about the "wasteful spending" allegations, which she called "alarming."
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 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.