WASHINGTON, DC – The Veterans’ Administration wasted more than $750,000 in taxpayer funds — including $50,000 for a parody video featuring a George S. Patton impersonator — to put on two lavish training conferences in Florida, an internal investigation has found.
A 150-report released yesterday by the VA’s Office of Inspector General estimated that the weeklong conferences cost $6.1 million; of the total, $762,000 was spent on what the report deemed “unauthorized,” “unnecessary” and “wasteful,” including $97,000 for promotional items such as pedometers, water bottles, exercise bands and USB drives and $154,000 undocumented travel expenses for vendors.
Both conferences took place in 2011 — one in July, the other in August — at the Orlando Marriott World Center Golf and Spa Resort. About 1,800 human resources employees attended.
The report singles out 11 conference organizers for improperly accepting gifts, such as helicopter rides and tickets to the Rockettes, from “contractors seeking to do business or already doing business with VA.” The staff members did not seem to let the gifts influence where the conferences were held or which contractors were hired, the report stated.
One employee, however, solicited gifts and could be prosecuted on criminal charges, the report stated.
Inspector General George J. Opfer repeatedly admonished John Sepulveda, the VA assistant secretary for human resources, for failing to supervise his senior executives. Sepulveda, an Obama appointee, also misled investigators when he denied knowing about the Patton video.
“Several individuals have, in fact, testified that Mr. Sepulveda viewed the videos before the conferences took place,” Opfer wrote.
Sepulveda resigned Sunday, explaining he didn’t want to be a distraction for the White House.
Yesterday, the VA announced that the organizers “who have misused taxpayer dollars or violated VA standards of conduct will be held accountable.”
Lawmakers who sit on committees that oversee the VA reacted swiftly to the report.
Florida Rep. Jeff Miller, who chairs the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, demanded: “This sort of funny-money accounting must stop, and will no longer be tolerated, especially in today’s tight fiscal climate.”
Sen. Patty Murray of Washington State, who chairs the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, didn’t hide her outrage either.
“The blatant waste of taxpayer dollars and government employees improperly accepting gifts cannot and will not be tolerated,” she said.
Not in question is the VA’s need to train its human resources staff members, whose numbers have doubled since 2001 to process claims.
At of the end of August, the VA had a backlog of 866,928 claims for compensation and benefits. Nearly 40 percent represented new claims by veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last year, the agency received 1.3 million claims from former service members.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has promised to put measures in place so that such mismanagement and lack of oversight “does not occur again,” according to the statement from the agency.
“Misuse of taxpayer dollars is completely unacceptable,” the statement said. “The actions cited in the report represent serious lapses in oversight, judgement and stewardship.”
The VA is the second federal agency to have a conference scandal this year. In April, the Government Services Administration came under fire for spending $822,000 on a 2010 conference in Las Vegas that featured a mind reader and over-the-top cocktail receptions. The embarrassment led GSA chief Martha Johnson to resign and brought about the firings of other senior officials.