- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Planners at the Department of Veterans Affairs accepted thousands of dollars in meals, spas, gift baskets and limo and helicopter rides from hotels hoping to host the VA’s lavish conference business, a congressional investigation has found.

The government planners traveled to Nashville, Dallas and Orlando to check out possible locations while treating the trips as little more than paid vacations, according to an investigative report set to be released Wednesday by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The report, circulated among lawmakers on Tuesday, focused on a pair of conferences in Orlando held in 2011 that cost around $6.1 million to train 1,800 VA employees.

“The true cost may never be known,” House investigators wrote of the conferences. “The Committee’s investigation has revealed that this massive price tag was the direct result of spending mismanagement, unethical behavior by federal employees and irresponsible leadership.”

The report also found parallels to the 2010 General Services Administration conference scandal that saw partying federal executives and political appointees run up a more than $800,000 tab in Las Vegas in a gathering that became a symbol of egregious government waste.

At the VA conferences, planners joked about including giveaways such as flat screen televisions, iPads, iPhones and Blu-ray players, eventually settling on nearly $100,000 in other promotional items like fitness walking kits and water bottles.

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While the conferences were supposed to train employees, officials spent lots of time planning after hours fun, according to the report.

Conference attendees had no shortage of options at night. The extracurricular activities included trip to the Disney or Universal Studios resorts, karaoke night, and oldies dance party and game nights, the report found.

“The Committee’s investigation of the Orlando conferences revealed a culture of willful waste at the Department and widespread disregard for how taxpayer dollars are spent,” the congressional report concluded.

In prepared testimony obtained by The Washington Times, Gina Farrisee, the VA’s assistant secretary for human resources, is set to tell lawmakers that the agency has taken “specific actions to increase oversight and controls…”

Ms. Farrisee’s testimony outlines, among other reforms, an outside, independent review of all training policies and procedures and ethics training for personnel involved in planning or running conferences.

• Jim McElhatton can be reached at jmcelhatton@washingtontimes.com.

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