On their face, the photos from an official Department of Veterans Affairs Facebook page displayed at a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing Wednesday looked suspiciously like a junket.
Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, (R-Fla.), opening the hearing into the VA’s spending on conferences, showed a Facebook posting from the VA Veteran’s Canteen Service showing an employee enjoying a nine-course meal at a hillside town on Italy’s southern Mediterranean coast.
“Research is tough, but someone has to do it,” read a comment underneath from the Veteran’s Canteen Service, which provides food and sells goods at VA facilities around the country.
Several committee members leveled outrage at deputy VA Secretary W. Scott Gould. Rep Bill Flores (R-Tex.), said the photographs indicate “a culture at VA that does not put veterans first” and suggested they were reminiscent of the notorious GSA Las Vegas convention scandal. “It’s almost like bureaucrats versus the veterans.
But after VA staffers had furiously worked their BlackBerrys, Gould told committee members as the hearing drew to a close that the photographs were from an employee’s vacation and not a VA conference.
“What was implied was this was a junket,” Gould told the committee. “This was a personal vacation. It shouldn’t have been posted on the Web site, but there was no VA funding.”
Gould chided Miller for having displayed the information. “Putting that information up is a slap to the VA employees,” he said.
With that, Miller erupted in anger. “I have never slapped at the 320,000 VA employees,” he said. “I have slapped the leadership.”
In his opening remarks, Miller had been careful to note that the photographs might or might not be “evidence of a boondoggle,” but complained that it was hard to know because the VA has not been forthcoming to congressional inquires into conference spending.
“At best, these are pictures of a privately funded vacation posted on a government Facebook page,” said Miller. “At worst, this was a taxpayer financed trip with no known legitimate purpose.”
“The point is that if VA refuses to respond timely to requests for information, we have no way of knowing except by exercising the extraordinary step of the Committee issuing subpoenas,” Miller said.
Rep. Corrine Brown, (D-Fla.), the incoming ranking member of the committee, said after the hearing that the Facebook posting should have been shared with the committee’s minority staff for proper vetting before being released at the hearing.
“I don’t like these ‘gotcha politics,’” she said.