The Department of Veterans Affairs spent $5 million—and set aside $4 million more — last year for two training conferences whose organizers are under investigation for breaking ethics rules by improperly accepting gifts, congressional committees and government sources said Monday.
The agency’s inspector general is investigating whether event planners and other organizers of the conference for human resources employees improperly accepted alcohol, concert tickets and spa treatments. Investigators also are looking into tens of thousands of dollars spent on promotional items for conference attendees, government sources said.
A total of about 1800 VA employees attended the four-day events, held in July and August 2011 at the Marriott World Center in Orlando, officials said.
The investigation comes four months after the General Services Administration was engulfed in scandal over a Las Vegas conference for the agency’s West Coast employees that cost $823,000. That four-day event, revealed by the GSA inspector general, was billed as a training exercise but was little more than an entertainment junket. The agency’s top leaders were fired or forced out as a result.
The VA conferences, by contrast, “were for legitimate training purposes,” the office of Inspector General George J. Opfer said in a statement Monday. But investigators “have uncovered questionable activities” in a review that started in late April, the statement said.
“We are reviewing conference expenditures for compliance with government laws and regulations, the reasonableness and oversight of these expenditures, and whether actions taken by VA staff were in compliance with government ethics and rules of behavior,” the office said.
Republican lawmakers said the veterans agency, the government’s largest after the Defense Department, authorized $9 million for the conferences. VA officials said $5 million was spent.
The allegations of wrongdoing came from whistleblowers who came forward in the wake of the GSA scandal, the inspector general’s office said.
In a statement, VA officials called the alleged misconduct “unacceptable” and said the agency already has made changes to address possible misspending.
“While the inspector general has stated that the conferences were for legitimate training purposes, that would not excuse the misconduct or poor judgement that is alleged of even a few individuals,” the statement said.
The agency said it has removed the purchasing authority of any employees under investigation. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki also ordered an outside review of all training policies and procedures and is requiring any employee involved in planning training conferences to take ethics training.
Lawmakers on congressional committees that oversee the agency were briefed by the inspector general’s office last week.
Rep. Jeff Miller, (R-Fla) chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said in a statement, “If the results of the IG investigation are upheld, this represents an egregious misuse of funds meant to provide for the care of America’s veterans.”
The inspector general’s preliminary findings have concluded that “multiple planning trips to multiple destinations cost the taxpayers thousands of dollars,” Miller said.
The inspector general’s full report on the conference is expected in September.