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Topics: Veterans Affairs

VA spent millions on meetings to improve financial management, but was anybody there actually listening?

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News,Watchdog,Mark Flatten,Veterans Affairs

Officials spent more than $19 million in less than a year on four training conferences for more than 5,700 financial managers at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Apparently not everybody attending was listening because the VA's Inspector General issued a scathing report earlier this week blasting the department's spending on such events.

The bureaucracy has helped itself to those resources rather than channeling them to direct services for veterans. - Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla.

The four meetings, which were held in San Francisco, Nashville and Dallas, were among the most expensive of nearly 1,600 employee conferences hosted by VA since 2005, according to an online database posted earlier this week by the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

All together, VA spent nearly $300 million on the 1,600 events.

The most expensive was a San Francisco gathering of 1,360 agency employees in August 2010 that cost almost $6.3 million. The conference's title was "financial management training."

Two other conferences carried the same moniker: a $4.4 million December 2010 meeting of 1,440 VA employees in Dallas and a $5.8 million gathering of 1,480 employees in Nashville in March 2011.

The fourth conference for the "office of finance" was held in Nashville and cost $2.75 million for 1,440 employees.

No VA officials would comment for this story.

Other high-dollar gatherings included sessions for top managers in the Veterans Health Administration in August 2011 in Chicago at a cost of $2 million, and in August 2006 in Las Vegas at a cost of $1.6 million.

In the Monday report, the VA IG ripped wasteful spending by the agency on a pair of human resources conferences held last year in Orlando at a cost of at least $6.1 million in July and August 2011.

VA employees planning the events took free gifts and unnecessary pre-meeting scouting trips, and paid opulent prices for such things as refreshments and a $52,000 video parody of the movie Patton.

The IG report led to the resignation of VA's top human resources executive. Two other department executives were placed on leave pending further investigation. Nearly a dozen other employees were either rebuked or face possible disciplinary actions.

The VA executives have struggled to explain their conference spending to Congress, claiming at different times the total tab last year was either about $100 million or $20 million.

The agency's chief financial official confirmed last month that the total annual cost for the 2011 fiscal year was about $100 million, including travel.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said during a hearing earlier today that "the bureaucracy has helped itself to those resources rather than channeling them to direct services for veterans." Miller chairs the House veterans panel.

Miller cited the excessive conference spending and bonuses paid to senior agency executives totaling nearly $4 million per year.

Mark Flatten is a member of The Washington Examiner's special reporting team and can be reached at mflatten@washingtonexaminer.com and 202-459-4929. Data editor Jennifer Peebles can be reached at jpeebles@washingtonexaminer.com and 202-459-4976.

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