Tension has been building between VA and the House Veterans' Affairs Committees, chaired by Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., because the agency has been slow to respond to questions about spending on conferences, including how much has been spent. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty)
“The truce is off,” the House Veterans Affairs’ Committee chairman declared Wednesday in an abrupt and explosive end to a hearing looking at VA spending on conferences and travel.
“Expect more oversight and investigation,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., as he gaveled to a close a hearing called to focus on $86.5 million of spending last year on Veterans Affairs Department conferences and workshops that unexpectedly expanded to include questions about foreign travel by VA workers.
Tension had been building between VA and Congress because the agency has been slow to respond to questions about spending on conferences, including how much has been spent. It was Miller and his staff who came up with the $86.5 million total for 2011, a number that Todd Grams, VA’s chief financial officer, didn’t dispute.
Miller and other committee members hammered VA witnesses about why hundreds of questions about conference spending asked in the last six months have not been answered.
The discussion went off the rails, though, when Miller started asking questions about photographs posted on VA’s Facebook website of a trip to Southern Italy by employees of the Veterans Canteen Service.
Gould and other committee members weren’t prepared for the questions, because Miller had given no advance warning.
Labeled on Facebook as a year old, the photos were of people sitting around an outdoor table with what appeared to be wine glasses. The photos were said to have been of a “side trip” to Southern Italy “to explore gastronomic ecstasy, explore some incredible locations and visit with VCS expatriate and former chief operating officer Ralph Shalda.”
Making this sound like official travel, there was a comment posted by the Veterans Canteen Service, saying, “Research is tough but someone has to do it.”
After the hearing, VA spokesman Nathan Naylor said the photos were of personal travel, not government funded travel, and should not have been posted on a VA website. “We regret those pictures were on the site,” Naylor said.
Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., the top-ranked Democratic member of the veterans’ committee, said she was unhappy that Miller had not told her about the Facebook photos before bringing them up at the hearing, comments that committee aides said could bode for a difficult relationship between Republicans and Democrats on a traditionally bipartisan panel.
Miller, though, wasn’t backing down, saying any embarrassment for VA employees comes from VA bureaucrats and not from a committee trying to get explanations about how taxpayer money is being spent.
“I had a nice conversation with Deputy Secretary [Scott] Gould yesterday on the phone, and thought we could work together, but it appears not,” Miller said. “Frankly, I’m tired of waiting for them to answer basic questions and tired of their excuses. If they don’t like getting more and more questions from us about conference spending and travel, maybe they could answer some of our questions.”
Gould conceded during the hearing that VA was lax on controlling spending, and said new safeguards have been put in place so that senior agency officials have a bigger role in approving expenses. “I apologize to veterans and this committee,” Gould said. “It is unacceptable this money was wasted.”