WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs spent nearly $87 million on training conferences last year.
VA officials told lawmakers Wednesday that the way the department’s budget accounts are organized, it’s a difficult figure to pin down. Venue booking falls under one account, travel reimbursement under another, supplies and materials under another.
“That’s the best number we have today,” said W. Todd Grams, chief financial officer for the department.
That’s not good enough, said representatives on the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
Lawmakers are irritated that officials aren’t providing enough oversight on training costs for employees, especially in the wake of a scathing inspector general report two months ago that found “serious management weaknesses” in a pair of training conferences in Florida last year.
VA officials spent more than $6 million on the professional development events, which about 1,800 employees attended. Investigators blasted many of the expenses, including $50,000 for a video parodying the movie “Patton,” $98,000 for promotional items such as tote bags and thumb drives, and $80,000 for questionable travel expenses and overtime pay.
Assistant Secretary for Human Resources and Administration John Sepulveda resigned as a result of the investigation, and the department implemented new rules for planning and paying for all training conferences.
Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs Scott Gould said officials are upset over the misspending, and have focused on correcting those mistakes.
But lawmakers bristled that the VA hasn’t provided timely accounting of the actual costs of the conferences, and said that financial ambiguity is indicative of an agency that doesn’t take stewardship of taxpayer dollars seriously.
“There’s a culture at VA that doesn’t put veterans first,” said Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas. “We wouldn’t need all these policies and procedures if you had the right culture there.”
Several representatives asked why congressional requests for information from the department are weeks behind schedule, and whether wounded veterans have to endure the same unnecessary waits. Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said Congress can’t perform its watchdog duties if the department refuses to provide basic information about spending and conference costs.
Others said professional development is critical to improving service, but the public perception after the Florida conferences has hurt those efforts.
Gould disputed the idea of a poisoned culture at VA, saying the problems stem from a small number of employees. Four were suspended and two were forced out as a result of the Florida conference investigation.
“We’re deeply concerned and apologetic about this, but we have a plan and we’re moving forward,” he said.
Gould promised that VA officials are working to answer all VA requests as quickly as possible, but noted the complexity of the bureaucracy and the 6,000-plus policy analysis requests from Congress this year.
Moments later, when asked by Miller how much the VA spent on foreign travel, Gould promised to provide an accurate and complete answer.
“And timely, too,” Miller said.
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