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UPDATED! Agencies resist Congress on conference spending data

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Photo - U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, left, is chairman of House Committee on Veterans Affairs (AP Photo)
U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, left, is chairman of House Committee on Veterans Affairs (AP Photo)
News,Watchdog,Mark Flatten

Demands for a full accounting of federal conference costs are being rebuffed by agencies that can't or won't produce spending records sought by Congress.

Sen. Tom Coburn has tried since April to get information about conference costs from all federal agencies. So far only about half have been able to produce spending records, said a spokesman for Coburn.

I believe that certain agencies have decided they are entitled to use this money as they wish without any oversight or direction. - Rep. Jeff Miller, Chairman of House Committee on Veterans Affairs

The Oklahoma Republican is the ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform also sent letters in April to 24 federal agencies seeking information about conference spending.

Committee spokesman Ali Ahmad would not say how many have complied with the order to date, but did say the results so far make it clear that "federal agencies are doing a very poor job of tracking their conference and travel spending."

One agency that has struggled to explain its conference expenses is the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Officials at the VA have given the House Committee on Veterans Affairs varying estimates of how much was spent on conferences last fiscal year, ranging from $20 million to $100 million.

The VA is the latest federal agency to fall under scrutiny for over-the-top conferences expenses. The agency spent $5.3 million in 2011 on two gatherings in Orlando. Expenses included $52,000 for a video parody of the movie "Patton" and $90,747 on coffee break refreshments, according to the veterans committee.

Many agencies, including the VA, apparently don't track their conference spending, reflecting a cavalier attitude about taxpayer money, said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

"I have no confidence in the system being able to track a dollar," Miller said of the VA and other agencies that cannot document their conference travels.

"That doesn't instill a great deal of confidence in what the agencies do with taxpayer dollars. I believe that certain agencies have decided they are entitled to use this money as they wish without any oversight or direction," he said.

Miller sent a letter earlier this month to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki seeking by next week an explanation of the wide gap in conference cost estimates. Agency officials also have not been able to explain the disparity to Miller or to The Washington Examiner.

The VA is also among the departments that failed to comply with an April 10 demand from Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House oversight committee, according to an Aug. 13 letter from him to Shinseki.

Issa originally gave two-dozen federal agencies until April 23 to provide breakdowns of costs associated with all conferences attended by more than 50 people since 2005.

Issa's letter was triggered by an inspector general's report released April 2 revealing opulent spending at a General Services Administration (GSA) conference at a Las Vegas resort in October 2010.

Coburn also asked all agencies for their conference ledgers in April and has received information from about half of them, said spokesman John Hart.

"The fact that agencies either don't know how this money is being spent, or know and don't want to tell, illustrates why individual Americans need to do more to hold Washington accountable and replace members of Congress who view oversight as someone else's responsibility," Hart said.

Former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker told the Examiner that federal agencies do a poor job of tracking conference spending. That is partly because of outdated technology and disparities in how expenses such as travel and meals are coded.

Some agency heads may also be reluctant to report bottom-line numbers once they add up the costs of all of their offices, bureaus and sub-agencies, said Walker, who served from 1998 to 2008.

"There's probably some concern about releasing these numbers once they pull them together and aggregate them," Walker said.

"There's a lot of sub agencies under there and when you end up aggregating the numbers for all the different agencies, you can get some pretty big numbers. So there may be some reticence to release those numbers in light of the recent controversy over GSA," he said.

So far, only seven of more than two-dozen agencies and offices that received Examiner FOIAs have provided at least some records detailing their costs.

UPDATE: VA response is a non-response

A VA spokeswoman, who would not agree to be named, issued a written statement late Thursday saying the agency “provided a response” to Issa and Coburn on August 24. 

She did not say what the response was or whether it included the financial records they sought. She also did not explain the disparity in reported conference spending last fiscal year.

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Mark Flatten

Senior Watchdog Reporter
The Washington Examiner