Lawmakers, Veterans Department square off over conference spending Lawmakers, Veterans Department square off over conference spending

November 28, 2012

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.

Opening the hearing into questionable VA spending on conferences, committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) used video monitors to show a 2010 Facebook posting from the VA’s Veterans Canteen Service. It featured an employee enjoying a nine-course meal at a hillside town on Italy’s coast.

“Research is tough, but someone has to do it,” read a comment underneath from the canteen service, which provides food and sells goods at VA facilities around the country.

Facebook and Twitter posts released by the committee were listed as being written by the canteen service rather than by a specific employee.

Several committee members expressed outrage to the witness, VA Deputy 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 that they were reminiscent of the notorious General Services Administration scandal over a Las Vegas conference. “It’s almost like bureaucrats versus the veterans.”

But after VA staffers 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 from 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 displaying the Facebook page at the hearing. “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 told Gould. “I have slapped the leadership.”

Miller added that he had made overtures before the hearing seeking to improve relations between the committee and the VA. But, “The truce is off,” the chairman declared.

The blowup overshadowed the rest of the hearing, held to prod the VA into releasing more information about the amount it spends on conferences and foreign travel — a figure the committee placed at $86.5 million for 2011.

In his opening remarks, Miller was careful to note that the Facebook posting — which included photographs of bountiful platters of seafood from a Calabrian trattoria and lovely scenery along the Amalfi Coast — might or might not be “evidence of a boondoggle,” but complained that it was hard to know because the VA had not been forthcoming in answering congressional inquires into conference spending.

“At best, these are pictures of a privately funded vacation posted on a government Facebook page,” Miller said. “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.”

Gould pledged that answers would be forthcoming, but he said the department was dealing with 125 requests for information about its travel, placing “a tremendous burden on VA” to respond.

“We have delivered truckloads of information,” Gould added.

The VA’s top human resources official resigned in connection with an investigation released Oct. 1 by the agency’s inspector general into more than $6 million spent on two training conferences for human resources officers in Orlando last year.

The report found that department conference planners allowed up to $762,000 in unauthorized or wasteful spending and accepted gifts, including spa treatments and entertainment.

Gould said that VA employees are “mortified by what happened at Orlando” but insisted that such images are “not one iota” representative of the culture at VA, which he said remained committed to serving veterans.

Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.), the 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.

The Facebook posting in question had been removed from the VA site before the hearing ended. Gould vowed to “get to the bottom” of why the photographs had been posted on a government Web site.

A VA official suggested that the employee, who was visiting a former senior Veterans Canteen Service official now living in Italy, was conducting informal research into the benefits of a Mediterranean diet.

Steve Vogel is a reporter for the national staff of The Washington Post who covers the federal government and frequently writes about the military and veterans.
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