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VA Divulges Some Details on Costly Conferences

Aug. 24, 2012 - 04:51PM   |  
By RICK MAZE   |   Comments
The Veterans Affairs Department has turned over to Congress 54 DVDs showing every moment, including some embarrassing ones, of the controversial 2011 human resources conferences held in Orlando, Fla., that cost taxpayers a combined $5 million.
The Veterans Affairs Department has turned over to Congress 54 DVDs showing every moment, including some embarrassing ones, of the controversial 2011 human resources conferences held in Orlando, Fla., that cost taxpayers a combined $5 million. ()

The Veterans Affairs Department has turned over to Congress 54 DVDs showing every moment, including some embarrassing ones, of the controversial 2011 human resources conferences held in Orlando, Fla., that cost taxpayers a combined $5 million.

The single worst moment is a video mix that shows VA employees singing karaoke to the Michael Jackson song “Beat It,” with excerpts from some of the week’s speakers. For example, one speaker says, “I’ll show you impact” as two women do the bump.

VA officials are not trying to downplay the potential waste of taxpayer money.

“Some of this material should never have been produced and misuse of taxpayer funds is completely unacceptable," VA officials said in a statement. "These events took place over a year ago and we have already adopted new rules that reflect our continuing commitment to safeguarding taxpayer dollars."

The VA inspector general has said in preliminary findings on its investigation into the conferences that the meetings seemed to have a legitimate purpose for training human resources employees. “This would not excuse misconduct or poor judgment that is alleged of even a few individuals," the VA said.

DVDs and other supporting materials about the conferences held at the Marriott World Center resort in July and August of 2011 show there was a purpose for the event — the training of human resources specialists in how to recruit and help keep quality employees at a time when VA has shortages that are causing delays in medical treatment and claims processing.

Documents do not justify the enormous cost of the conference nor answer questions about whether VA officials following the law and regulations in spending about $2,500 a person for 1,900 attendees at an event that that featured a personal appearance by actor Jim Deken, who played the role of Gen. George Patton, in motivational speeches.

The Patton videos — three in all — cost the VA about $52,000.

The DVDs show Deken, who had small parts in the 2006 moving “Saving Shiloh” and the 1991 movie “She Stood Alone,” being cheered like a rock star when he arrives on the fourth day of both the July 11-15 and Aug. 8-12 conferences.

VA officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Deken has made previous appearances at VA events dating back to at least the Clinton administration.

In his personal appearances, Deken also provided one uncomfortable moment when he asks one of the senior VA people attending the conference, Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey, “Do you want to borrow my riding crop?” Hickey’s reaction is not shown.

Several other high-ranking VA officials attended the conferences. The highest ranking official was Scott Gould, VA’s deputy secretary, who made one-day appearances at the July and August events, according to information provided to Congress. Meetings were videotaped as part of the $5 million conference package, and for the most part show from two camera angles in addition to a final production tape.

Throughout the meetings, VA officials describe the July conference as the “best conference ever” and the August conference as the “bester conference ever,” and there is a lot of talk social events scheduled after the conferences ended. Bus service was provided at no charge to local amusement parks but organizers made clear that VA was not covering admission and there were no discounts for simply being a VA employee.

Human resources conferences are scheduled every two years, but the 2011 event — with its 1,900 attendees — was far larger than the 2009 conference, which had just 600 attendees.

The 2011 events are being investigated by VA’s inspector general and by two House committees, veterans’ affairs and oversight and government reform. The two committees also are looking for information about the costs of the 2009 conference.

VA is not the only agency under scrutiny from Congress for conference expenses. The Defense Department and other federal agencies are also being questioned by congressional investigators.

In DoD’s case, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has identified 64 conferences held since 2006 for which travel or conference expenses appear excessive.

The committee used as its threshold for expenses the costs of the now notorious General Services Administration’s 2010 conference in Las Vegas that launched a closer look at government conferences. For that event, GSA spent an average of $3,000 per person for travel, lodging and food and $600 per person per day for conference costs.

Using information provided by the Defense Department to calculate per-person expenses, the committee says it found 64 meetings that exceeded those costs.

The oldest conference questioned by the committee was a three-day event in December 2006 in Colorado Springs, Colo., about subsonic aerial targeting. The most recent event was a two-day conference in September 2011 held in Coronado, Calif., by the Naval Air Technical Data and Engineering Service.

Ten of the defense-related conferences questioned by the committee were held overseas.

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