The Veterans Affairs Department’s inspector general is investigating allegations that some employees illegally accepted gifts — possibly including free rides in helicopters and a stretch limo — from hotels they were scouting as possible locations for two conferences held last year.
A Capitol Hill staffer told Federal Times Tuesday that the alleged gifts to conference organizers also may have included free lodging, food, alcohol, concert tickets, spa treatments and gift baskets. The IG has not reached any conclusions on those allegations yet, the staffer said.
VA spent $5 million on the two human resources training conferences at the Marriott World Center in Orlando, Fla., in July and August 2011. VA’s IG began investigating allegations of wasteful spending and improper acceptance of gratuities in April after receiving a tip on its hotline.
The staffer said the IG is investigating roughly $200,000 in questionable spending at the two conferences.
IG’s office told Federal Times Monday that the conferences were for legitimate purposes but it has “uncovered questionable activities” in its probe.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said that “if the results of the IG investigation are upheld, this represents an egregious misuse of funds meant to provide for the care of America’s veterans.”
Miller told Federal Times that VA spent roughly $84,000 on promotional items, including highlighters and pens with the agency’s logo.
And about a half-dozen employees went on several scouting trips to at least three locations that were being considered for the conference. Miller said the multiple planning trips cost about $13,000.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, in an Aug. 10 letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, called the allegations and preliminary findings “alarming.”
“Despite the legitimate purpose of training, there can be no excuse for excessive or wasteful spending of VA resources,” Collins said in the letter. “At a time when so many veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are in need of care and assistance, the VA must make every effort to spend each dollar in support of its important mission.”
Collins’ office said the IG’s office briefed lawmakers last week, and that the IG received its original tip in the wake of the General Services Administration’s infamous Las Vegas conference scandal detailed in an April report from GSA’s IG. Shinseki was also briefed.
In a statement to Federal Times, VA said the alleged misconduct is unacceptable.
“Secretary Shinseki … will hold accountable any individuals who are found to have misused taxpayer dollars or violated our standards of conduct,” VA said.
VA said that it has removed the contracting authority of any employees who are under investigation. And Shinseki ordered an outside review of all training policies and procedures to be completed within 90 days, the agency said.
VA also ordered employees involved in recertifying, planning and executing training conferences to undergo ethics training.
In April, the GSA IG’s office detailed a 2010 conference for GSA employees in Las Vegas that cost $823,000, a fraction of the alleged costs of the VA conference being investigated. The April release of the report on the GSA conference quickly led to the ouster of GSA’s top leaders.
The VA IG’s office told Federal Times that it will likely release its report by the end of September, but would not provide any more details on what it found. It said the conferences were for legitimate purposes.
Lawmakers are likely to hold hearings on the conferences after the final report is released.