VA execs were encouraged to spend more on wasteful conferences

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News,Watchdog,Mark Flatten,Veterans Affairs

Top Department of Veterans Affairs officials had incentives to spend money rather than control costs for two employee-training conferences that wasted hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars.

Most of the $6.1 million spent on the conferences came from accounts that normally fund veterans' health care.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki should end the agency's culture that does not question the expenditure of funds and cannot account for them once they are spent. - Rep. Bob Filner, D-CA

Annual performance plans of the two highest-ranking executives in charge of the conferences made a top priority of spending as much as possible from VA's human resources training and recruitment accounts, according to the agency's Inspector General in a report issued last week.

Nothing was said about controlling costs.

As much as $762,000 was wasted on the two conferences held last year in Orlando, according to the IG.

VA officials refused to comment for this story.

Seventeen other VA employees involved in planning and conducting the conferences received more than $43,000 worth of bonuses and paid time-off for their work on the events. The bonuses ranged from $750 to $5,500.

SHINSEKI

Several were even rewarded for things the IG condemned as wasteful, including production of a Patton parody video. The unidentified employee behind the parody got a $4,000 bonus.

"I find it infuriating that VA would have the nerve to incentivize this type of waste when our veterans are continually struggling to receive care," said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. "Apparently they are quick to reward irresponsible behavior."

Miller has called for the removal of VA Chief of Staff John Gingrich, the top official singled out for criticism by the IG.

SEPULVEDA

Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House veterans affairs panel, echoed demands for reform.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki should end the agency's "culture that does not question the expenditure of funds and cannot account for them once they are spent," Filner said in a written statement.

John Sepulveda, VA's top human resources executive, resigned the day before the IG report was released last week.

Sepulveda's top accomplishment, according to his 2011 performance review, was spending the entire $300 million budget of an agency training account, the IG said.

MUELLERWEISS

Another senior VA executive, Alice Muellerweiss, was encouraged in a 2011 performance plan to spend at least 80 percent of a $284 million training account, with no mention of insuring efficiency. Such incentives likely encouraged wasteful spending, the IG said.

Five unnamed VA employees who helped plan the conferences got bonuses for "keeping senior leadership aware of conference issues," according to the IG.

Those bonuses contradicted post-conference claims by top VA officials that they weren't told by underlings about wasteful spending.

Five other unnamed employees got bonuses for controlling costs. Muellerweiss approved at least some of the awards, according to the IG report.

Funding for the Orlando conferences came through VA's ADVANCE program in the department's human resources office. The program funds things like training, recruitment and retention.

But about 94 percent of the money for ADVANCE - $271.3 million - came from the Veterans Health Administration, the arm of the agency that provides health care to veterans, according to the IG.

The VA's budget is $140 billion this year, with $53 billion for health care and $75 billion for veterans' pensions and disability payments.

The department is battling a processing backlog of nearly 900,000 disability and pension claims, about two-thirds of which are older than 125 days, the agency's goal for completion.

American Legion National Commander James Koutz told The Washington Examiner he does not begrudge the VA conferences, but he believes "the priorities are not in order."

"We need to be more focused on maybe just having a meeting then getting back to work so we can stop this backlog of claims for our veterans," he said.

Do you have tips or information about problems in the VA or any other federal agency? Contact Mark Flatten at mflatten@washingtonexaminer.com or 202-459-4929.

Examiner Data Editor Jennifer Peebles contributed to this story and can be reached at jpeebles@washingtonexaminer.com or 202-459-4976.

Photo by flickr user 401(k)2012, used under a Creative Commons 2.0 license. 

 

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