At least three key lawmakers have sent letters to the Veterans Affairs Department demanding further details on two multimillion-dollar federal training conferences held in Florida last summer, specifically asking about a video featuring an actor reprising the famous opening scene from the 1970 film “Patton.”
Ten days after the story broke that VA is under investigation for having spent an estimated $5 million on two conferences in Orlando, Fla., at which some employees may have accepted improper gifts, Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, joined ranking member Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., in a letter asking VA Secretary Eric Shinseki for three years’ worth of information on conference spending.
“I question the excessiveness in which taxpayer dollars are being used to fund multimillion dollar conferences,” Miller said. “The committee will continue to investigate these conferences. I have requested all budgets and materials for VA conferences that have occurred over the past three years to see if these two conferences are an anomaly or are part of a bigger pattern.”
Miller also asked the VA to clarify a past discrepancy in reporting the total amount the department spends on conferences. That letter follows a similar request from Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, who on Aug. 13 called the video and alleged overspending “eerily similar” to the scandal that broke in April over $820,000 that a group within the General Services Administration spent on a four-day training conference for 300 in Las Vegas.
Issa said the VA inspector general’s office had identified seven individuals who made scouting grips to three cities in planning the Orlando conferences. He questioned why an outside contractor was given the job of creating the “Patton” video celebrating VA human resources officials when there are videographers on the VA staff.
Issa also noted that Veterans Affairs had yet to respond to his April request to 24 agencies for general documents on conferences involving more than 50 attendees.
Also writing to VA on Aug. 13, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, asked for a briefing on how much the department spent on the two conferences. She asked how that compared with other recent conferences; what other conferences the relevant employees had worked on; what reviews of conference expenditures are underway at the department; what disciplinary measures have been taken toward those employees and “what systemic reforms have you implemented, or do you plan to implement, to prevent similar abuses in the future.”
On Wednesday, VA issued a statement on the video. “This parody should never have been produced and this misuse of taxpayer funds is completely unacceptable,” the department said. “This event took place over a year ago and we have already adopted new rules that reflect our continuing commitment to safeguarding taxpayer dollars.”
An Aug. 13 departmental statement said Shinseki had stripped purchasing authority from employees involved in the Orlando conferences and vowed to "hold accountable any individuals who are found to have misused taxpayer dollars or violated our standards of conduct." Shinseki has also been communicating with the lawmakers by telephone.
Miller expects answers by Sept. 4, Issa and Collins by Aug. 27.