By KEVIN FREKINGAssociated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) - Federal investigators estimated Monday that the Department of Veterans Affairs wastefully spent about $762,000 at two employee conferences last year in Orlando, Fla., and that senior leadership failed to provide proper oversight in planning and executing the events.
The inspector general for the VA said 11 of the department's employees also accepted improper gifts from contractors seeking to do business with the government.
The VA responded by saying that it agreed that "the actions cited in the report represent serious lapses in oversight, judgment, and stewardship." It also noted that the department had accepted the resignation, effective Sunday, of Assistant Secretary John Sepulveda, the official who oversaw human resources at the department.
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.
Lawmakers and agencies are paying closer attention to employee-training conferences after a lavish conference held by the General Services Administration featured a clown, a mind-reader and rap video. The scandal led to the resignation of the GSA's administrator.
The report from the VA's inspector general is also generating scrutiny because the department is trying to muster resources to meet the challenge of providing health care to the soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. 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.
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 Secretary Eric Shinseki on its investigation. He directed outside reviews of all training and conference policies as well as ethics training.
The IG's report said that the department was unable to provide and 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.
In another instance, a vendor, SRA, commingled expenses with other unrelated expenses and did not provide invoices to support some of the expenses.
"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.
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