UPDATED! Watchdog Alert: VA refuses to explain six-day Hawaii meeting

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Photo - Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki's department is keeping a close hold on details about costs, attendance at the agency's six-day gathering in Honolulu. (AP Photo)
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki's department is keeping a close hold on details about costs, attendance at the agency's six-day gathering in Honolulu. (AP Photo)
News,Watchdog,Mark Flatten,Veterans Affairs

Lips are sealed tight at the Department of Veterans Affairs where officials refuse to explain the $2.5 million their agency spent last year on a six-day gathering featuring sporting events for aging veterans at a luxurious Hawaiian resort.

Among the charges was more than $1 million for an outside consultant to plan the Golden Age Games during six days at the event held at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Honolulu.

If they are not coming forward with some basic stuff, you wonder if there is worse stuff out there. It's just ludicrous.' - Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-KS

The VA has refused to respond to a lengthy list of detailed questions from The Washington Examiner about the event that was held in May 2011.

Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas, said he also wants the agency to explain its expenses for putting on the games and why they were held at such a high-cost venue that is difficult for most veterans to attend.

"If they are not coming forward with some basic stuff, you wonder if there is worse stuff out there," said Huelskamp, a member of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. "For years, I will talk about the $1.1 million consultant to put on the Golden Games in Hawaii. It's just ludicrous."

The games are staged annually by the VA for military veterans aged 55 or older, and include events such as air-rifle shooting, dominoes, swimming, horseshoes and shuffleboard.

So far the only cost figures that are available are found on official federal spending disclosure databases like USASpending.gov, which shows expenses of $444,995 for hotel rooms, $390,000 for transportation services at the games and $229,000 for gift or meal cards for the participants.

The largest single expense was for the event planner, Alaska Destination Specialists Inc., based in Anchorage, Alaska.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who was born and raised in Hawaii, attended the games, according to an agency press release issued at the time.

After publishing a story last week exposing the costs, the Examiner asked for more detailed information, including the total number of VA employees who attended, the names of the top agency officials at the games besides Shinseki and the total amount spent on outside planners for similar events and conferences.

Particularly vexing is the cost of the hotel rooms. The VA's event director for the games told the Examiner last week that veterans who attended paid for their own hotel rooms.

But he ended the interview before explaining whether the charges showing up on USASpending.gov reflect the cost for hotel rooms used by agency staff. There is no indication on the disclosure site that the VA was reimbursed for the money it paid to the hotel. Such an entry would normally show up if the agency fronted deposits to reserve room blocks that were later paid for by others.

The VA is already under congressional scrutiny for its spending on conferences. The agency's inspector general is expected to release a report later this month detailing improper payments for a pair of conferences in Orlando last year that cost taxpayers more than $5 million.

Among the costs of those conferences were $52,000 for a video parody of the movie "Patton" and $90,000 for coffee break refreshments.

The House veterans affairs committee has launched its own investigation into those and other conferences put on by the agency.

UPDATE: 178 VA employees went to Honolulu

After more than a week of silence, the VA partially responded to the Examiner’s questions a few hours after the newspaper posted this story earlier today about the agency’s unwillingness to account for the cost of the 2011 Golden Age Games.

Shortly after a copy was posted with the article of the specific questions the newspaper had addressed to VA, the department emailed a written response.

The games in Hawaii were attended by 178 VA personnel, according to the statement from a department spokeswoman, who would not agree to be quoted by name.

The only top officials to attend were VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and Tammy Duckworth, the agency’s former assistant secretary who is now a Democratic congressional candidate in Illinois, according to the statement.

The VA’s reply did not state total conference costs, or provide the requested figure for how much the agency paid for hotel rooms. The statement said only that the amount paid to the hotel was “less than half” of the nearly $500,000 reported by the Examiner based on figures from USASpending.gov.

“This was not an event that was put on for the benefit of VA employees,” the spokeswoman said. “The staff that put on the games, like all VA employees, are dedicated to providing quality care to Veterans of all eras.”

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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