House panel to examine VA spending on extravagant conferences

October 29, 2013

A Department of Veterans Affairs marketing consultant asked whether Washington Redskins cheerleaders were available to promote agency conferences in 2011, according a congressional report.

The request is an example of how the VA lost sight of its mission of caring for veterans as it planned extravagant events, according to a House committee report obtained in advance of a hearing Wednesday on the agency’s conference spending.

The two agency events were held in Orlando near Walt Disney World and cost taxpayers a minimum of $6.1 million, according to the VA inspector general. The expenses included $50,000 for a 15-minute video spoofing the Oscar-winning movie “Patton.”

Eleven employees accepted gifts such as Rockettes tickets, massages and helicopter rides from vendors while planning the events, the watchdog office said last year.

“E-mails obtained by the committee show that the department’s conference planners unapologetically and recklessly wasted taxpayer dollars,” said a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee staff report. “Taxpayers deserve better. And even more so, veterans deserve to know that the VA is doing everything it can to provide crucial services.”

The VA has revised its conference policies since last year to “strengthen oversight, improve accountability and safeguard taxpayer dollars,” Gina Farrisee, the department’s assistant secretary for human resources and administration, said in prepared testimony. The changes include requiring approval from senior department officials, depending on an event’s cost.

VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki also has ordered oversight changes such as removing purchasing authority from some employees and requiring ethics training for staff members involved in conference planning, Farrisee said in her written remarks.

A department employee who helped plan the conferences pressed Mary Santiago, identified in the report as deputy to the dean of the VA Learning University, about how certain items would be funded.

“You don’t have a thing to worry about,” Santiago said in her reply e-mail, according to the committee report.

Conference planners also spent months organizing a pre-event kickoff to boost “employees’ excitement about the conferences,” the committee report said.

The VA marketing consultant asked a representative of the Redskins cheerleaders in May 2011 if the squad could appear at the kickoff to promote the conferences, the report said. The representative replied that the cheerleaders would be outside the country at the time and offered to send “ambassadors” instead, according to the report.

“Could you please explain a little about them?” the VA consultant said in a reply e-mail included in the report. “As in do they wear uniforms? Have pom-poms etc.?”

The hearing is the latest effort by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the committee, to expose wasteful spending on conferences by federal agencies. His committee reviewed similar spending by the General Services Administration and the Internal Revenue Service as the government seeks to cut costs.

At the two VA human-resources events, the agency incurred $762,000 in unauthorized and wasteful expenses, according to the inspector general’s 2012 findings.

The department last year announced the resignation of John Sepulveda, the VA’s assistant secretary for human resources, before the report on the Florida training events was published. Sepulveda, who is scheduled to testify at Wednesday’s hearing, was on a list of speakers at the Orlando conferences.

The former VA assistant secretary told investigators he hadn’t viewed the “Patton” video before the conferences, according to the report. He later said he “did not accurately recollect” that his staff had arranged for him to “briefly preview” the videos, according to his sworn statement accompanying the inspector general’s report.

The watchdog office referred the matter to the Justice Department, according to written testimony from Richard Griffin, the VA’s deputy inspector general, for Wednesday’s hearing. The Justice Department declined to prosecute Sepulveda and an event planner who sought a lodging gift “to enrich his and his family’s stay” at the Marriott International resort in Orlando, according to the prepared testimony.

— Bloomberg News

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