WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs spent $5 million and set aside $4 million more last year for two training conferences, and now the conference organizers are under investigation over whether they broke ethics rules by improperly accepting gifts, say lawmakers and government sources.
The agency’s inspector general is investigating whether event planners and other organizers of the training for human resources employees took alcohol, concert tickets and spa treatments from vendors. Also under scrutiny are tens of thousands of dollars in promotional items the conference organizers gave attendees, government sources said.
A total of about 1,800 VA employees attended the four-day event, held in July and August 2011 at the Marriott World Center in Orlando, officials said.
The probe comes four months after the General Services Administration became engulfed in scandal over a Las Vegas conference for that agency’s West Coast employees that cost $823,000. The cost of the four-day event, which was billed as a training exercise but was little more than an entertainment junket, was revealed in a scathing report by the GSA inspector general. GSA’s top leaders were fired or forced out as a result.
The VA conferences, by contrast, “were for legitimate training purposes,” the office of Inspector General George J. Opfer said in a statement Monday. But investigators “have uncovered questionable activities” after a preliminary review that started in late April.
“We are reviewing conference expenditures for compliance with government laws and regulations, the reasonableness and oversight of these expenditures, and whether actions taken by VA staff were in compliance with government ethics and rules of behavior,” the inspector general’s office said.
Republican lawmakers said the department authorized $9 million for the conferences. VA officials said $5 million was spent.
The allegations of wrongdoing came from whistleblowers who came forward after the GSA scandal became public, the inspector general’s office said.
In a statement, VA officials called the alleged misconduct “unacceptable” and said the agency already has made changes to address possible misspending.
“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 statement said.
The agency said it has revoked the purchasing authority of the employees under investigation. Officials declined to say how many are under scrutiny. VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki also ordered an outside review of training policies and procedures and is requiring employees involved in planning such conferences to repeat ethics training that is given at hiring time.
Lawmakers on congressional committees that oversee the agency were briefed by the inspector general’s office last week.
Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said in a statement, “If the results of the IG investigation are upheld, this represents an egregious misuse of funds meant to provide for the care of America’s veterans.”
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Miller’s counterpart, said in a statement that she, too, is “deeply disturbed” by the allegations.
The inspector general’s preliminary findings have concluded that “multiple planning trips to multiple destinations cost the taxpayers thousands of dollars,” Miller said.
The inspector general’s full report is expected in September.