The VA medical system is streched thin by increasing demands and tight budgets, but its employees wasted more than $700,000 on conferences in the vacation hot spot of Orlando and collected illegal gifts from vendors.
Its budget and facilities already stretched thin, the Veterans Affairs Department wasted money on two summertime training conferences to the vacation hot spot of Orlando, Fla., that cost taxpayers more than $6 million and let federal employees collect freebie gifts like meals, helicopter tours, limo rides, massages and show tickets from contractors, an internal investigation has found.
The VA's inspector general concluded top agency officials failed to be good stewards of taxpayer money throwing conferences last year, including spending nearly $50,000 to create a parody video featuring the late Gen. George Patton.
In all, federal investigators concluded about $762,000 of the money spent on the two events in July and August 2011 was wasteful, undercutting their legitimate human resources training mission for the conferences.
"The issues described in this report and the lack of processes needed to control and track expenditures negatively affected the results of these HR conferences," Inspector General George Opfer wrote in the report released this week. "As VA moves forward, this report should serve as lessons learned that all VA management officials and staff share responsibility and accountability for meeting program objectives in an economical manner and reflect proper fiscal stewardship of taxpayer funds."
Adding to the vacation-like atmosphere of the events, the watchdog found at least 11 VA employees accepted illegal gifts from hotels and other vendors seeking their business in connection with the conferences. VA officials toured three cities before choosing Orlando as the conference destination.
The gifts they accepted during the selection process and subsequent conferences ranged from free lodging, room upgrades and limo rides to meals, gift baskets, gift cards, spa massages, Rockettes show tickets and a helicopter ride, the inspector general reported.
"All of the VA employees who participated in the pre-selection conference site visits to Dallas, TX; Nashville, TN; and Orlando, FL, accepted gifts in violation of laws and regulations," the inspector general reported. "The hotels that offered the gifts were prohibited sources in that they were seeking official action by VA in selecting their venue for the conferences, and their interests could be substantially affected by the employees’ performance or nonperformance of their official duties in evaluating and/or recommending the hotels for the conferences."
The report also provided a stinging rebuke of top VA officials involved in planning the events, referring one assistant secretary for possible criminal investigation for making false statements during the investigation and citing another official for failing to appreciate the wasteful nature of the Patton parody video.
The report made public this week is the latest to raise questions about the government's travel practices, which first came to light earlier this year when the General Services Administration acknowledged it spent nearly more than $800,000 on conference in Las Vegas that featured a clown, a mind-reader and rap video.
Lawmakers in both parties expressed outrage at the VA's handling of the conferences in Orlando, which is the gateway to the Walt Disney World resort.
Members of Congress from both parties voiced outrage in response to the IG's report, saying the findings demonstrate that the department lacks an adequate system of checks and balances to ensure it's a good steward of taxpayer dollars.
"The blatant waste of taxpayer dollars and government employees improperly accepting gifts cannot, and will not, be tolerated," said Sen. Patty Murray, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
Rep. Jeff Miller, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said the money spent in vain could have been used to provide hundreds of veterans with health care.
One senior VA official involved in the planning of the events has resigned as a result of the investigation.
In all, the two VA conferences cost about $6.1 million and were held to fulfill valid training needs for nearly 1,800 employees. But some expenses were unnecessary and wasteful, including nearly $100,000 for unnecessary promotional items, nearly $50,000 for the production of a video featuring a parody of General George S. Patton and nearly $150,000 in contractor travel picked up by the department, said the inspector general's report.
In August, the inspector general briefed VA Secretary Eric Shinseki on its investigation. He directed outside reviews of all training and conference policies as well as ethics training.
The inspector general reported the department was unable to provide accurate accounting of costs associated with the conferences and that estimates changed several times during the investigation. Investigators said they identified "serious management weaknesses," including VA staff making purchases they were not authorized to make.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
The Veterans Affairs Department or VA is the Cabinet-level federal agency charged with providing health care, benefits and job training to America's military veterans.