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House committee pushes VA on conference spending

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WASHINGTON (AP) — A year after federal investigators disclosed $762,000 in wasteful spending at Department of Veterans Affairs' training conferences, the agency has put into place about half of the recommended changes designed to keep spending in line.

In particular, investigators are calling for an employee manual that spells out what spending practices are allowed and not allowed at conferences.

The conferences, held in July and August 2011, already have been the subject of congressional hearings and scathing critiques from lawmakers. Wednesday's hearing before a House oversight committee gave lawmakers the opportunity to review progress.

The inspector general had found that conference planners spent nearly $100,000 on promotional items such as hand sanitizers and pedometers, and they spent nearly $50,000 on a video parody of the movie "Patton."

Some of those workers who chose the conference site in Orlando, Fla., inappropriately received perks such as spa treatments, concert tickets and limousine and helicopter rides while they reviewed potential conference locations. That money could have been used to improve services for veterans, lawmakers said Wednesday.

"Our veterans were abused, and I used that work carefully, but I use it deliberately" said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Affairs.

Gina Farrissee, who began her job as the VA's assistant secretary for human resources just last month, told lawmakers that the VA conducted reviews using outside consultants to find out what went wrong and has issued new policies to ensure greater oversight. For example, any conference costing more than $500,000 is generally not allowed and may only occur if the VA secretary grants a waiver. She also noted a ban on spending for entertainers or promotional gifts.

Farrissee said the department is also tasking senior executives with responsibility for ensuring that each conference meets the department's training and spending criteria.

Richard Griffin, deputy inspector general for the department, said the VA's response to the conference criticism was aggressive, thorough and addressed a chief shortcoming in that "nobody was in charge" of the two Orlando conferences.

Griffin said the employee manual, scheduled to be released in December, was an important recommendation that remains unfilled.

"We just need to get to the finish line, get the book published, so everybody has it and there's a certain protocol and process they have to go through," he said.

The department is also building a Web portal that will document conference spending, but that website is also considerably behind schedule.

"We're already a year late," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. "It's a bit much. I think we can do better."

John Sepulveda, the VA's assistant secretary for human resources at the time of the conferences, subsequently resigned about the time the IG's report was released last year. He declined to answer questions at Wednesday's hearing, citing his Fifth Amendment right not to testify.

The Republican staff of the committee also released a 97-page report based on the inspector general's findings and its own review of documents, which included emails from planners discussing the need to have a celebrity of some sort to kick off one of the conferences. They reached out to the Washington Redskin cheerleaders but were informed they were out of the country.

When VA employees analyzed the conferences' weaknesses, planners noted that many conference attendees did not attend training sessions because they were spending time at nearby attractions, including Disney theme parks. The planners proposed monitoring devices for an additional $50,000 to keep track of attendance.

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