Topics: Veterans Affairs

Watchdog: VA spends millions to train employees on union contract

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Photo - Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki, AFGE National VA Council President Alma Lee and AFGE National President John Gage at the signing of the new AFGE,VA master agreement. (AFGE Photo)
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki, AFGE National VA Council President Alma Lee and AFGE National President John Gage at the signing of the new AFGE,VA master agreement. (AFGE Photo)
News,Watchdog,Mark Flatten,Veterans Affairs

Conferences to train Department of Veterans Affairs employees on provisions of a union contract cost taxpayers more than $5 million last year, according to documents obtained by The Washington Examiner.

Travel and other expenses to send about 2,100 VA employees to more than two dozen such events totaled $5.3 million, but those costs were only one of many perks the department agreed to pay for under the agreement with the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE).

That's money that is not going toward treatment or training or other activities that occur at the VA. - Tom Schatz, president, Citizens Against Government Waste

In addition, federal employees who are union officials and who participate in the training conferences were not required to use "official time" allotted to AFGE in the March 2011 bargaining pact.

Official time requires the government to pay union officials their full salary and benefits even though they work exclusively on union activities. The VA spent an estimated $34 million in 2010 on official time, the most by far of any federal department or agency, according to a report by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

"It looks like we are paying the unions to get together so they can unionize some more," said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas, a member of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. "It's government bureaucracy run amok."

The VA's conference spending came under the committee's scrutiny in August after the panel learned the department spent $5.3 million on a pair of Orlando gatherings last year.

The Orlando gathering featured a $52,000 "Patton" movie parody and more than $90,000 on coffee break refreshments. A VA Inspector General's report on such misspending is due to appear today.

After claiming to have spent only $20 million last year on conferences, VA officials acknowledged during a recent committee hearing that the agency in fact spent $100 million on the events.

The union training sessions required in the contract occurred from June through August 2011. With few exceptions, each of the 25 conferences cost nearly a quarter-million dollars for between 50 and 100 people.

Venues included Las Vegas, New Orleans, Atlantic City, San Francisco and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Detailed conference spending records are not available from the agency. A VA spokeswoman would not comment. Union representatives also did not return a reporter's telephone calls seeking comment.

The agreement between the VA and union says they will jointly train employees on the provisions in the contract, but that the department pays the cost.

Trainers from the union are on official time while attending the sessions, but those hours will not be counted against the total hours allotted under the contract. Other VA employees who receive training are paid normally as part of their regular jobs.

The agreement sets aside more than 67,000 hours of official time for top AFGE officials. The union's national VA council president and three national executive vice presidents work full time for the union, but continue drawing their full pay and benefits from taxpayers, under the agreement.

Other union representatives of VA employees spend half their time working for the labor group while drawing full-time paychecks from the agency.

The agreement also allots the national union 25,000 hours of official time to be spent at the discretion of the union president. It has other provisions for local AFGE officials to qualify for official time, but the number of hours is not clearly specified.

The OPM report shows the VA allowed 809,740 hours of official time for union representatives to do union work in 2010. The total tally for all federal agencies was about 3 million hours of official time in 2010 at a cost of $137.4 million.

Tom Schatz, president of the independent watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste, said the VA agreement with AFGE is "a pretty sweet deal" for the union, but not for taxpayers or veterans.

"The VA could spend its money better taking care of the veterans," Schatz said. "That's money that is not going toward treatment or training or other activities that occur at the VA."

Mark Flatten is a member of The Washington Examiner's special reporting team and can be reached at rflatten@washingtonexaminer.com. Data editor Jennifer Peebles contributed to this story and can be reached at jpeebles@washingtonexaminer.com.

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