Hearing on Veterans Affairs conference spending turns combative

Veterans Affairs Deputy Secretary W. Scott Gould Veterans Affairs Deputy Secretary W. Scott Gould Elise Amendola/AP

Veterans Affairs Department officials assured lawmakers during a hearing Wednesday that VA has taken measures to ensure it will not waste taxpayer dollars on lavish conferences such as two widely criticized human resources training events held in Orlando, Fla., in the summer of 2011. But the hearing turned contentious, with one Republican going as far as to say he “could care less about the bureaucrats” at VA.  

House Veterans’ Affairs Committee members on both sides of the aisle blasted the department for its lax oversight of the Florida conferences and for its inability to provide additional information about the events.

“Absent any clear response” to requests for information, said committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., “I am left to wonder whether VA, at best, has no reliable controls on its spending or, at worst, is hiding something from this committee.”

The department spent more than $6 million on two conferences in Orlando in July and August 2011, according to a report by the department’s inspector general. Auditors cited “serious lapses in oversight, judgment and stewardship” within Veterans Affairs.

VA Deputy Secretary W. Scott Gould on Wednesday maintained that the conferences -- held to improve human resources training -- were valid in concept, but agreed they were unacceptable in execution.

“No one was more disappointed than [VA] Secretary [Eric Shinseki] and I,” Gould said.

He added VA is conducting a comprehensive review of its conference spending procedures and has implemented stronger oversight and additional accountability measures. When repeatedly challenged on how the excessive spending could have happened in the first place, Gould was less conciliatory, arguing the actions taken by a few involved in the conferences are not representative of the “320,000 hardworking VA employees.”

Miller began the hearing by displaying Facebook photos from an official VA page that showed an employee on vacation, implying the trip was paid for by federal tax dollars. Gould said the employee was on a vacation that was personally funded, and while the photos should not have been posted to the official page, they were not indicative of any wrongdoing.

“Putting that kind of information up is a slap at the employees who work at VA every day,” Gould said, adding the language that the committee members used has “tarnished the reputation” of the employees.

“I have not one time slapped at any of the 300,000 VA employees,” Miller interjected. “I have slapped at the leadership.” Referencing a “civil conversation” in private with Gould on Tuesday, Miller added, “the truce is over. It lasted less than 24 hours . . . Don’t you ever accuse a Democrat or a Republican on this committee of slapping any of the hardworking 300,000 VA employees.”

Moments before, however, Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas, struck a different chord when questioning VA officials.

“It all seems like the bureaucrats versus the veterans, and to me the veterans come first and I could care less about the bureaucrats,” Flores said. Miller told Government Executive after the hearing Flores was simply referring to the leadership at VA.

Republicans repeatedly accused VA of evading their questions, saying they had sent 66 requests for information to the department that have gone unanswered, including the total amount spent on conferences since 2005, total amount spent on foreign travel for conferences and a list of everyone who attended the two conferences in 2011.

Gould said the reason for the delay is the volume of requests and the need to ensure accuracy.

“There is a range of inquiries we get from your committee and others -- the Senate side as well -- and the effort to provide accurate information . . . is the sole reason for our delay here,” Gould said.

Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., said the hearings have become excessive, calling the amount of time VA has spent gathering and sending information to Congress rather than actually helping veterans “ludicrous.”

Not all of Brown’s fellow Democrats agreed with her assessment:

“I don’t consider it to be ludicrous,” said Rep. and Sen.-elect Joe Donnelly, D-Ind. “I consider it to be doing our job.”

Miller ended the hearing on an ominous note, telling VA officials their correspondence with his committee was just beginning.    

“Expect more questions from this committee, because they are coming in great volumes,” he said, just before slamming the gavel to adjourn.

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