Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki Jacquelyn Martin/AP file photo

VA limits purchasing authority amid probe of pricey conferences

Veterans group is disappointed in $5 million tab for two events.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki has rescinded the purchasing authority of employees in the departmental division under investigation for two conferences that cost $5 million and may have involved inappropriate gifts. Shinseki also has set up a 90-day independent review of Veteran Affairs Department training policies, VA announced.

In a statement released after news broke Monday that human resources employees at conferences in Florida in July and August 2011 may have accepted thousands of dollars’ worth of gifts that included alcohol, concert tickets and spa visits, the department also said it is conducting new ethics training for all personnel involved with the planning and execution of conferences and recertification of contract specialists.

VA said it is committed to reducing conference and overall travel costs and it will continue to ensure taxpayer money is used for training that will enable employees to best support veterans. “While the inspector general has stated that the conferences were for legitimate training purposes, that would not excuse the misconduct or poor judgment that is alleged of even a few individuals,” the department said in a statement on the Florida events.

While VA declined to comment on details of the investigation, a spokesman disagreed with an initial report from Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, that the total costs of the two conferences may have reached $9 million. The department put the estimated cost at $5 million.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairwoman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said in a statement that she is “deeply disturbed” by the allegations of waste and misuse of funds. “If these reports are true, the employees responsible must be held accountable and the VA needs to figure out what went wrong and make sure it never happens again,” she said. “Waste of taxpayer money is unacceptable, but it is especially egregious when it was intended to be used to support and care for our veterans.”

Murray vowed to monitor the issue closely as the investigation continues.

Marty Callaghan, spokesman for the American Legion, told Government Executive that his organization “is certainly disappointed with the Department of Veterans Affairs' apparent mismanagement of funds in this matter. Our country's veterans must be able to trust VA -- be sure it is making the right decisions in these times of fiscal restraint. We need to ensure that the dollars allocated to the VA budget are going to the timely delivery of high-quality health care.”

Miller noted it was only a week ago that President Obama signed H.R. 1627, a law that instructs VA to report to Congress on any conferences costing more than $20,000. “In a twist of irony,” Miller added, “a month before these conferences took place VA officials testified before the committee that more stringent oversight regarding conference expenditures was unnecessary” and attempts to strengthen oversight would “impose burdensome notification and reporting requirements on the department.”

Veterans of Foreign Wars Director of Public Affairs Joe Davis declined to comment on the conferences while the investigation was taking place.