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Panel widens probe of costly VA conferences

Aug. 29, 2012 - 10:35AM   |  
By RICK MAZE   |   Comments
Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida is seen in the Oval Office on Aug. 6. Miller said the House Veterans' Affairs Committee has widened its investigation of expensive VA conferences.
Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida is seen in the Oval Office on Aug. 6. Miller said the House Veterans' Affairs Committee has widened its investigation of expensive VA conferences. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty)

The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee has widened its investigation of expensive VA conferences to include events in Chicago, Las Vegas and Scottsdale, Ariz., in addition to the $5 million human resources conferences in Orlando last summer that even the VA admits were over the top.

Now under review:

* A $221,000, 11-day event at a Scottsdale resort. Fifty Veterans Affairs Department employees attended the conference, and expenses included a $97,000 fee to a contractor who ran the event.

* A $2.1 million two-day event in Chicago for the Veterans Health Administration. The August 2011 conference was attended by 912 VA workers, including 155 from VA headquarters. Its expenses included a $31,500 fee to author and motivational speaker Dan Heath, who did not appear at the event but provided a video to be played. He and his brother Chip Heath are co-authors of “Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard” and “Made to Stick,” books aimed at executive managers.

* A $2.4 million conference in Las Vegas, attended by 1,334 VA workers. The two-day event was held September 2011.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., confirmed the committee’s review has expanded.

“My concern is that the Orlando conferences are not the only multi-million-dollar, taxpayer-paid conference that needs to be looked at more closely,” Miller said.

The July and August 2011 human resources conferences in Orlando gained attention, at least in part, over $52,000 paid for three videos and a personal appearance by a Gen. George Patton imitator. The committee is looking at the other events for similar spending on entertainment or other nonessential costs.

Also being sought are photographs of events taken by attendees that may reveal more details about expenses.

Costs for the Orlando conference are still being added up by the committee, which has discovered among the bills more than $90,000 spent on coffee breaks, $98,000 for catering and $185,000 for snacks for what appears to be just one of the two weeks.

The Orlando events are under review by the Veterans Affairs Department inspector general, with a possibility of criminal charges being brought. The IG is looking into whether strict contracting and ethics rules were followed.

Miller said the veterans’ affairs committee probably won’t have a public hearing about the expenses until the IG finishes its report.

“I am urging the IG to finish their investigation as soon as possible so that Congress can take appropriate action, including a possible hearing shortly after the IG’s final findings are available,” Miller said.

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