VA held nearly 1,000 conferences during the past three and a half years

Susan Walsh/AP

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki ordered a comprehensive review.

The original headline and story misstated the timeframe for the conferences reported. They have been corrected.  

The Veterans Affairs Department held 948 conferences attended by 50 or more employees between January 2009 and June 2012, according to a contract notice posted Friday on the Federal Business Opportunities website seeking outside help analyzing the department’s conference planning and spending practices after VA Secretary Eric Shinseki ordered a comprehensive review.

In an Aug. 16 letter to Shinseki, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, pointed out that W. Todd Grams, the department’s chief financial officer, disclosed at a Nov. 15, 2011, hearing that VA’s conference spending totaled “a little more than $100 million” in fiscal 2011 and $92 million in 2009.

The House Veterans Affairs Committee disclosed Friday that VA spent $5.3 million on two conferences in Orlando, Fla., attended by 1,800 human resources employees in the summer of 2011. This is roughly seven times the $820,000 the General Services Administration spent on a Las Vegas conference for 300 employees in 2010.

Expense breakouts for one of those VA two conferences showed the department spent $296,165 on an audiovisual center for employee use, $184,800 for morning and evening refreshments, $90,747 for coffee break refreshments, and $862 for a karaoke night.

“As we learn more about these conferences, I am more and more concerned about the clear lack of leadership, accountability and transparency at VA,” Miller said in a statement Friday.

“To see that VA employees were treated to tens of thousands of dollars in refreshments, a $300,000 audiovisual center, and a night of karaoke does not invoke confidence in employees who are entrusted with the nation’s monies for veterans. The committee is now looking into additional conferences held during the past two years, and it is imperative that VA continues to provide information to Congress so that we can determine the full extent of this blatant misuse of taxpayer dollars,” Miller said.

In a statement on the Orlando conferences, VA said: “Misuse of taxpayer funds is completely unacceptable. This event took place over a year ago and we have already adopted new rules that reflect our continuing commitment to safeguarding taxpayer dollars.

“While the inspector general stated on Aug. 13 that all indications are that the conferences were for legitimate training purposes, this would not excuse misconduct or poor judgment that is alleged of even a few individuals.”

In his Aug. 16 letter to Shinseki, Miller said VA later backtracked from the conference budget that Grams provided to the committee in November 2011 and told committee members that “an accurate, reliable figure on the number of conferences [held in the past several years] is not available.”

Miller asked Shinseki for a detailed list of the number of conferences that VA held in each fiscal year from 2009 through 2011 and their budgets, as well as data on fiscal 2012 conferences. Both the committee and the VA inspector general are conducting probes of department conferences.

VA is eyeing the use of an outside contractor to answer these questions, according the request for information notice posted last Friday.

The RFI indicates the department wants a contractor to examine policies and procedures governing conferences and travel regulations based on an unspecified number of randomly sampled conferences that Veterans Affairs held from 2009 through 2011. “The review shall include an assessment as to the adequacy of VA's controls over conference planning and how those controls are implemented throughout the department,” the document states.

Analysis of the conferences should “be conducted on records, on paper and electronic media. This will include analysis on the receipt of gifts, gratuities, or unbilled services provided to conference planners or other VA employees, and the necessity of preconference planning travel,” the RFI said.

VA wants interested vendors to respond by Aug. 30. If the department awards a contract, officials expect the analysis to be completed in 90 days.