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Topics: Veterans Affairs

Fireworks on the Hill! House committee head erupts over VA 'stonewalling'

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Photo - House Committee on Veterans Affairs Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, left, talks with veteran George White during a July 13, 2012, rally in support of a new Veterans Hospital in Kingston, Tenn.  (AP Photo/Bob Fowler, Knoxville News Sentinel)
House Committee on Veterans Affairs Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, left, talks with veteran George White during a July 13, 2012, rally in support of a new Veterans Hospital in Kingston, Tenn. (AP Photo/Bob Fowler, Knoxville News Sentinel)
News,Watchdog,Mark Flatten,Veterans Affairs

Scott Gould pushed Jeff Miller's buttons one time too many today.

"The truce is over. Expect much more oversight from this committee," said Miller, the Florida congressman who chairs the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

The committee 'got the same old crap that VA has been giving us for two years, and I'm tired of it.'
--U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller

Gould is second-in-command to Secretary Eric Shinseki at the Department of Veterans Affairs, which depends upon Miller's panel for its budget and much more.

Miller was still steamed after the contentious hearing adjourned, telling The Washington Examiner that VA is "stonewalling" and his committee "got the same old crap that VA has been giving us for two years and I'm tired of it."

The committee "will be digging in every possible corner that we can for issues that are not being served for the veterans. If you have leadership within the VA that have arrogant attitudes, the veterans are not being well served," he told the Examiner.

The eruption came amid two hours of grilling of Gould by members of the House panel on what the congressmen see as a culture of chronic waste and mismanagement in the department.

Miller was upset because the VA has repeatedly rebuffed committee attempts to get more information on its conference spending, particularly on a pair of controversial training events held last year in Orlando at a cost of $6.1 million.

The VA's inspector general issued a report in October that found conference planners squandered as much as $762,000 at the events, including $50,000 video parody of the movie "Patton" and almost $100,000 on promotional trinkets like water bottles and pedometers.

Some VA officials improperly took freebies such as hotel rooms, limousine and helicopter rides, massages, manicures and pedicures. Seventeen agency workers involved in the conferences received bonuses worth about $43,000. Some got bonuses for controlling costs.

"None were more disappointed than the secretary and I in the lapses in oversight and judgment identified by the VA inspector general's report," Gould said.

"Those failures were unacceptable and I apologize to veterans and this committee for their occurrence," he said.

Miller said VA officials have repeatedly promised cooperation with the committee but failed. Seventy-five of the panel's 91 requests for information on conference spending have not been answered, he said.

So far only one person has lost his job over the misspending, John Sepulveda, the former assistant secretary for human resources who quit the day before the IG report was released.

Gould repeatedly called the extravagance of the Orlando events unacceptable, saying the revelations "mortified" the more than 300,000 agency employees who work hard to serve veterans and had nothing to do with the conferences.

Internal review and approval processes for future conferences have been revamped to provide more accountability, Gould told the committee. While Sepulveda is the only one to lose his job so far, other VA employees involved in conference planning are under administrative investigation and could also be fired, he said.

However, those employees are covered by civil service protections and there is a lengthy process that must be followed to protect their rights as federal workers.

Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas, said he takes no comfort in the new bureaucratic procedures outlined by Gould because there is a flawed culture within VA management.

"There is a culture at VA that does not put the veterans first," Flores said. "It almost seems like it's the bureaucrats versus the veterans. You just create offices and bureaucrats to try to offset the fact that we have a broken culture."

Mark Flatten is a member of The Washington Examiner's special reporting team. He can be reached at mflatten@washingtonexaminer.com.

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Mark Flatten

Senior Watchdog Reporter
The Washington Examiner