Updated 5:34 p.m. ET
The fallout from those controversial, overpriced muffins served at a conference sponsored by the Justice Department continues: The crumbs now spread all the way to the Department of Veterans Affairs, which soon could be forced to regularly inform Congress of any and all costs associated with the conferences and training sessions it sponsors.
By voice vote Tuesday, the House passed a bill that requires the department to provide details of costs for meetings big and small — including an upcoming VA-sponsored training session at the Royal Pacific Resort at Universal Orlando.
“The swaying palm trees. The tropical breezes. People have always been captivated by the allure of the South Seas,” according to the hotel’s Web site, which notes that conference participants are eligible for a $97 nightly room rate — a price consistent with local federal travel per diem rates.
While it sounds alluring, the conference is designed to give the department’s contracting officers the 80 hours of training they must complete every two years in order to keep pace with federal contracting guidelines, according to VA spokeswoman Jo Schuda. She said planning for the conference was underway before federal conference spending came under close scrutiny in the wake of a Washington Post report on hefty bills paid by the Justice Department for several of its conferences.
At one Washington meeting — depending on whose version of events you believe — DOJ was either charged $16 for each muffin served or $14 for each continental breakfast provided to conference participants. (Post Ombudsman Patrick R. Pexton wrote a post mortem on all of this following the initial report.)
In response — and without checking the facts of the audit — the White House quickly forced federal agencies and departments to review all of their conference spending in time for a December Cabinet meeting.
At the VA, Deputy Secretary W. Scott Gould is signing off on all conference-related activities and costs, Schuda said.
And now Congress is also getting involved: The House bill, sponsored by Rep. Marlin A. Stutzman (R-Ind.), would direct the VA to provide quarterly spending reports on all conference costs for transportation, parking, per diem rates, lodging, the rental of halls and auditoriums, entertainment, printed material and — of course — refreshments.
In language accompanying the bill, Stutzman and the House Veterans Affairs Committee said they understand the need for conferences and training sessions, “but believe that there must be more transparency and oversight of these meetings.”
The department’s growing number of conferences means it is requesting $105 million more in fiscal 2012 for travel costs, the committee said. It also cited an 11-day conference in Scottsdale, Ariz. held for 60 people that cost the Veterans Benefits Administration $221,540 in travel, lodging and other costs.
“The committee is very concerned about costs that are not directly related to the mission of providing services and benefits to veterans,” it said.
We’re on the lookout for similar examples of federal cost-cutting. If you know of any, e-mail us or share your thoughts in the comments section below.
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