Topics: Veterans Affairs

VA faces subpoenas, hearings on conference waste

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House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller discusses the committee's difficulty getting documents from the VA regarding conference costs in remarks he made today in Illinois. He is introduced in this video by Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois.

Watchdog,Mark Flatten,Veterans Affairs

Subpoenas and congressional oversight hearings are in store to force Department of Veterans Affairs officials to explain runaway spending on employee conferences and similar events, the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs said today.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said stonewalling by the VA, the second-largest federal agency, is forcing the committee into the unusual step of issuing congressional subpoenas for all documents detailing spending on conferences.

Also on the list will be financial records for the Golden Age Games, friendly sporting tournaments VA hosts annually for aging veterans.

The events were held in Hawaii last year at a cost of about $2.5 million.

"Unfortunately there is this culture within VA that if they don’t spend the money, they’re not going to get it again. What we are finding now is a complete waste of dollars."
-- Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman, House Committee on Veterans Affairs

“Because of the lack of transparency, we will be subpoenaing – which is not the customary thing to do – their records on all conferences across the United States in an effort to have complete openness and find out where the money is going,” Miller said while campaigning for Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill.

“Unfortunately there is this culture within VA that if they don’t spend the money, they’re not going to get it again. What we are finding now is a complete waste of dollars,” Miller said.

Last month, the agency’s Inspector General issued a report blasting officials in the VA’s Human Resources and Administration office for wasteful spending on a pair of training conferences in Orlando in 2011 that together cost $6.1 million.

Baubles bought with taxpayer dollars include a $50,000 video parody of the movie Patton and almost $100,000 worth of promotional trinkets such as shopping bags, pedometers and squeeze bottles.

In all, the IG questioned $762,000 in spending on the two events.

Agency officials who planned the conferences also took expensive pre-conference scouting trips, and improperly accepted gifts such as manicures and massages offered by vendors.

Miller previously called for the ouster of VA Chief of Staff John Gingrich, the top official implicated in that IG report.

A VA spokeswoman said in a written statement that Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, a retired Army four-star general, immediately informed Congress when he learned the IG was investigating the Orlando conferences. The veterans committee separately has struggled for more than a year to determine how much the VA spends on conferences.

Agency officials delivered estimates between $20 million and $100 million for last year alone. They recently admitted to the higher figure if travel expenses are counted.

Miller demanded detailed conference spending records from the VA in an Aug. 16 letter to Shinseki that was co-signed by the committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Bob Filner of California.

So far, Miller has not been satisfied with the answers.

The veterans’ panel traditionally is bipartisan and rarely uses subpoenas or even sworn testimony, Miller said Thursday, adding he expects people to tell the truth. That’s not happening with witnesses from the VA, he said.

“The Department of Veterans Affairs has been less than forthcoming,” Miller said, adding he plans oversight hearings on the conferences sometime after next week’s election.

Veterans attending the Golden Age Games are expected to pay for their own transportation and hotel rooms, yet the VA spent about $2.5 million on the Hawaii event.

Costs include more than $1 million for an outside consultant, as well as travel and lodging expenses for the 178 VA employees sent to Hawaii to plan and put on the games, which are open to veterans aged 55 and older.

“The culture of overspending is outrageous,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas, a member of the veterans committee.

Miller and Huelskamp spoke at a news conference for Walsh, whose opponent is Democrat Tammy Duckworth, former assistant VA secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs.

Duckworth planned and attended the games.

Mark Flatten is a member of The Washington Examiner's special reporting team. Contact him at mflatten@washingtonexaminer.com.

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