The $5 mil VA conference in Orlando, FL [With Legion Response]
The Federal Times continues to break stories about the lavish spending spree under the guise of "human resources training conferences" for VA personnel.
The Veterans Affairs Department, rocked last week by a scandal concerning excessive conference spending, hopes to skirt the fate that befell the top leadership at the General Services Administration four months ago.
VA’s Office of Inspector General is investigating allegations of wasted money and improper gifts at two human resources training conferences last summer in Orlando, Fla., that cost a combined $5 million.
And where did your tax money go?
• $84,000 in promotional items distributed to the conferences’ 1,829 attendees, including pens and highlighters with VA’s logo.
• $13,000 for about a half-dozen employees’ scouting trips to at least three locations under consideration for the conferences.
• At least $100,000 more in other, unspecified waste, bringing the total amount of questionable spending to roughly $200,000.
In case you want to do the math, this resulted in a per capita cost of $2733.73 per attendee.
And now they've found another extravagence, a $52,000 18 minute spoof of the opening scene of Patton, complete with power point. I can't make it through the whole thing without getting angry, but if you want to watch it, knock yourselves out:
House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., sent VA Secretary Eric Shinseki a letter Aug. 13 asking for the parody video, and for contracts and documents related to the planning and execution of the July and August 2011 human resources training conferences. Issa gave VA until Aug. 27 to provide the video and documents.
In his letter, Issa said the video used a paid actor to satirize the iconic opening scene of “Patton,” in which World War II Gen. George Patton delivered a rousing speech to his troops in front of a massive American flag.
“Although the VA has videographers and editors on staff, the conference planners engaged a contractor to produce the video,” Issa wrote.
And, that doesn't seem to be the only problem, per a story in the Orlando Sentinel:
Of particular concern to congressional investigators, as well as the VA's inspector general, is whether conference organizers broke federal rules by accepting gifts from hotels when deciding where to hold the two conferences in July and August 2011 – a decision that ultimately went to the Orlando World Center Marriott, the area's largest convention hotel.
[F]ederal employees are not allowed to accept "gifts" worth more than $20 from organizations that seek to do business with the agency for which they work, according to federal guidelines.
Businesses that showcase food and other offerings for meeting planners look at it as a marketing investment, and Orlando's main convention-and-visitors bureau says it is up to meeting planners to make sure they stay within the ethical guidelines that govern their organizations.
This is sure to anger a host of veterans, and with good reason. The American Legion have a response shortly.
UPDATE: LEGION RELEASE
Recent accounts of two multi-million-dollar VA human resources conferences last year, one of which reportedly included a $52,000 18-minute video parody of the movie “Patton,” has the leader of the nation’s largest wartime veterans organization, along with top lawmakers on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, demanding answers.
“At a time when everyone in the federal government is cutting back due to the budget deficit, it is unseemly to hear of conferences in a resort town and money spent on activities that don’t seem central to VA’s core mission,” American Legion National Commander Fang A. Wong said after learning that the VA Inspector General has been investigating two VA conferences in Orlando, Fla., that rang up a reported $5 million in costs. “I don’t know how much is too much for a conference for the second largest department of the federal government, but this seems excessive, especially for a nation at war and with VA losing ground on a backlog of nearly 1 million undecided benefits claims.”
In addition to the “Patton” parody, the conferences reportedly spent $84,000 on VA-branded promotional items, such as pens, notepads and hand sanitizer.
“VA certainly has the technology to conduct training by teleconference and use other methods in order to train staff and keep costs under control at the same time,” Wong said. “Our nation just passed $16 trillion in debt, and the budget deficit remains the biggest issue the federal government faces. Just like every American in this time of economic difficulty, the government needs to look for ways to control unnecessary spending.”
House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and the committee’s ranking member, Bob Filner, D-Calif., jointly issued a letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki demanding answers about the two Orlando conferences and spending on such conferences in general over the last three years. Click here to read the letter.
The lawmakers asked Shinseki to provide a detailed list of all VA conferences, their budgets and their costs between 2009 and 2011. The letter reported that VA Chief Financial Officer Todd Grams told Congress last year that “a little over $100 million” had been spent on VA conferences in 2011 when the lawmakers had been informed that only slightly more than $20 million was budgeted for 2011 and $22 million for 2012.
“The American Legion applauds the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee for its investigation into this issue,” Wong said. “Veterans are waiting for hospitals and for benefits decisions. VA has to remember its priorities.”