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Topics: Veterans Affairs

Watchdog: VA admits spending $100 million on conferences in 2011

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News,Watchdog,Mark Flatten,Veterans Affairs

It turns out the Department of Veterans Affairs spent $100 million on conferences last year - not the $20 million it previously claimed - and it didn't account for that money to a Congressional committee demanding details, either.

VA was, and in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, continues to be tone deaf to the fiscal difficulties this country is facing. - Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla.

The $100 million figure was confirmed Thursday by Todd Grams, the VA's chief financial officer, under grilling from impatient members of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs about why they can't seem to get straight answers from the agency.

It's been more than a month since the committee's chairman and ranking member sent a letter to the VA seeking an explanation for the widely-varied estimates of how much was spent on conferences last year. VA officials had put the figure between $20 million and $100 million.

Grams said the lower estimate did not include travel costs, which account for about 80 percent of conference expenses. So, while the conferences themselves may have cost about $20 million, getting employees to them raised the tab to $100 million, he said.

Even that morsel of information did not come easily.

Scott Gould, the VA's deputy secretary of veterans affairs, initially tried to dodge questions from Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas, about when committee members could expect detailed information on conference spending that they have requested.

Gould first said he'd have to check, then deferred to Grams, who said he understood the information had already been provided to the committee.

At that point, Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., interrupted to say the VA has yet to provide the accounting he asked for in an Aug. 16 letter also signed by the committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. Bob Filner of California. The two sought detailed information on conference spending for the past three years.

"The committee and apparently the VA does not know," Miller said after the hearing. "VA was, and in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, continues to be tone deaf to the fiscal difficulties this country is facing. I am extremely frustrated by the VA's lack of transparency, accountability and stewardship of funding entrusted to its officials."

Scrutiny of the VA's conference spending heightened after it was revealed in August that the agency's inspector general is about to issue a scathing report on a pair of training sessions last year in Orlando that cost more than $5.3 million. Among the expenses were a video parody of the movie "Patton," produced at a cost of $52,000, and almost $91,000 on coffee break refreshments.

Huelskamp told The Washington Examiner after the hearing that he is "shocked" that an agency that is supposed to be helping veterans would spend $100 million in one year on conferences.

"That's $100 million that didn't go to help the veterans," Huelskamp said. "It went instead to send people to conferences."

Also troubling is that the agency cannot explain where the money went, he said. "It is outrageous. Either their financial management system is worse than their health care system or they are simply withholding information. It's just a sign of incompetence."

Aside from the conference costs, Huelskamp asked the VA officials when he could expect answers he is seeking about the $2.5 million spent to put on the Golden Age Games, sporting events for aging veterans, in Hawaii last year. The agency sent 178 employees to help stage the six days of games in Honolulu, which drew about 900 veterans aged 55 and older.

Gould said he would check into it.

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

Letter to VA from Rep. Jeff Miller
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