WASHINGTON (AP) — The truce is over and expect more aggressive oversight in the coming months, a House committee chairman angrily told leaders of the Department of Veterans Affairs on Wednesday.
The comments from Rep. Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican who heads the Committee on Veterans' Affairs, came at the conclusion of an often-contentious hearing regarding spending at employee training conferences.
Mr. Miller called the hearing in response to an inspector general's report from Oct. 1 that described some $762,000 in expenses from two Orlando, Fla., conferences that were deemed as wasteful or unnecessary, such as a $50,000 video featuring a parody of former Gen. George S. Patton.
W. Scott Gould, a deputy secretary at the VA, told lawmakers that the department had taken several steps in response to the inspector general's report, including ethics training for all VA personnel involved in planning and overseeing the conferences. He also noted that four employees had been suspended and two others resigned.
Mr. Miller's committee has sought more detailed information from the VA about the department's overall training and travel budgets.
He said that while he could get little information from the VA, social media websites used by VA employees hinted at some extravagance. He noted one Facebook page comment on a trip to Italy, but it was not clear that the pictures were part of an official trip or an employee's vacation. One viewer responded to the pictures by saying, "tough trip," prompting a response from the VA's Canteen Service stating, "Research is tough, but someone has to do it."
"Is this a boondoggle or not a boondoggle?" Mr. Miller asked.
Mr. Gould said that the VA is working to improve its health care at every turn and that includes leaving the country on occasion to hear from leaders in various health fields.
"We are smart enough to know that there are other smart folks out there in other countries that may have insights, suggestions and scientific advances that can help us serve our veterans more effectively," Mr. Gould said.
Mr. Miller went on to say that the committee has made 91 requests for information from the VA since September, but that three-quarters of the queries have gone unanswered.
Mr. Gould said that part of the lag in response stems from the large number of requests made to the VA. It also takes time to make sure the information provided is accurate. He noted that the VA has responded to 1,100 congressional briefings and more than 3,000 questions from lawmakers, but Mr. Gould did not provide a time frame.
As the hearing began to wrap up, Mr. Gould talked about the need to avoid criticizing the VA's staff, prompting an explosion from Mr. Miller, who said the VA should never accuse any member of the committee taking a slap at the department's 320,000 employees.
"Rest assured, it's the leadership we're concerned with," Mr. Miller said as he adjourned the hearing.
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