The House Committee on Government and Oversight Reform held a hearing Wednesday morning examining what it described as a “culture of mismanagement and wasteful conference spending” at the Veterans Affairs Department.
Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said the actions of VA officials are abusive to veterans. He noted he used that word carefully, but deliberately.
“Only in this kind of environment of not caring enough about taxpayers’ money can you have this kind of what I grew up calling chutzpah — to use taxpayers money, enjoy the perks and ask for overtime,” Issa said.
The hearing was largely referring to the 2011 VA conferences in Orlando, Fla., and the multiple examples of wasteful spending highlighted in an inspector general report. In 2011 alone, there were 299 conferences exceeding $87 million, according to Rep. John Mica, R-Fla. After the conference, VA personnel who planned the event received $43,000 in bonuses.
Gina Farrisee, who has served as VA’s assistant secretary for human resources and administration since September, said the problem was clearly leadership.
“I do not think there was good leadership or oversight,” she said. “I do not think the leadership even knew what was happening.”
According to Richard Griffin, deputy inspector general at VA, there was no one person actually in charge, but three individuals participated in the planning.
“Between the three people in charge, they never had a meeting to discuss the conference, conference costs, etc.,” Griffin said. “There was no cost tracking, no spend planning, review of credit card purchases made — one individual made purchases of over $100,000.”
Following an August 2012 IG investigation into the Orlando conference, VA issued a revised policy on conference planning and oversight policy. One of these new requirements was that conferences estimated to cost between $20,000 and $100,000 needed approval by an executive, and conferences between $100,000 and $500,000 required approval by the deputy secretary.
VA also had an October 2012 deadline to create a Web portal to collect and catalogue data on conference costs. More than a year later, the Web portal is nonexistent although Edward Murray, deputy secretary for finance at VA, said the goal is to have it up and running by December 2013.
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., urged VA to adopt more of these Web-based solutions for training and management purposes saying, “If technology is properly deployed and invested in, it can make a difference.”