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Watchdog: Accountability

'Unethical behavior' drove wasteful spending at Veterans Affairs conference

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Mismanagement, unethical behavior and irresponsible leadership led to massive wasteful spending on a pair of training conferences put on by the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2011, according to a new congressional report.

The year-long investigation by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform documented a “spending binge” in which conference planners squandered hundreds of thousands of dollars while treating themselves to pampering at taxpayers' expense.

The committee also released a new video produced for the conference Wednesday in advance of an investigative hearing on the training sessions in Orlando in July and August 2011, which cost taxpayers about $6.1 million. The opulent spending on the conferences has already come to be defined by a $50,000 parody video of the movie “Patton.”

“The department wasted millions on these conferences while wounded veterans have waited months to receive the help they deserve for their service to their nation,” Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the chairman of the Oversight committee, said today in advance of the hearing.

The new video shows workers performing karaoke to the tune of “We are Family” with short snippets of VA officials making brief statements about how happy they are to be at the conferences. No cost estimate for the new video is available. Click here to view the video.

Planning of the conferences was so poorly done that VA has yet to be able to produce a firm accounting of the costs, according to the committee report.

The oversight committee’s investigation provided additional details to the wasteful spending revealed in an inspector general’s report, released in October 2012, which found as much as $762,000 was misspent.

Among the other findings:

» VA conference planners made scouting visits to Dallas, Nashville and Orlando, which they treated more as vacations than work trips, lapping up perks that included helicopter rides from the hotels. Some of them also took advantage of massages, manicures and pedicures at the hotel spa during the conferences.

» The agency rewarded those who helped plan the wasteful conferences with more than $43,000 in cash bonuses and time off.

» Some senior VA officials became concerned about the rapidly increasing cost of the conferences months before they were held, but they made no effort to curb the costs.

» When word of the extravagance of the conferences began to leak out in the press, VA officials attempted to hide photos taken at extracurricular activities.

» When some conference planners raised concerns about the source of funding, they were told “they don’t have a thing to worry about.”

» While the agency did provide a cap on marketing costs, it was set at $450,000.

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