Watchdog Report Exposes VA Conference Shenanigans

A simmering scandal over exorbitant conference spending at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is threatening to boil over. Could this be the development that finally brings much-needed accountability and reform to the VA? Let’s hope so.

In August, I wrote about the growing controversy over a pair of extravagant multimillion-dollar training conferences the VA hosted in sunny Orlando, Florida, in 2011. Initial reports indicated that the conferences were rife with waste and abuse of taxpayer dollars, but clear answers were hard to come by. Members of Congress, on a bipartisan basis, demanded a full accounting.

Last week we got that full accounting in the form of an extensive watchdog report from the VA’s Office of the Inspector General, and it’s not pretty. The Washington Examiner reports:

In the [October 1] report, the VA IG ripped wasteful spending by the agency on a pair of human resources conferences held last year in Orlando at a cost of at least $6.1 million in July and August 2011.

VA employees planning the events took free gifts and unnecessary pre-meeting scouting trips, and paid opulent prices for such things as refreshments and a $52,000 video parody of the movie Patton.

The IG report led to the resignation of VA’s top human resources executive. Two other department executives were placed on leave pending further investigation. Nearly a dozen other employees were either rebuked or face possible disciplinary actions.

The VA executives have struggled to explain their conference spending to Congress, claiming at different times the total tab last year was either about $100 million or $20 million.

The Examiner report makes it clear that these were not isolated incidents—the Orlando conferences reflect a broader pattern of waste and abuse of taxpayer dollars at the VA. You can read the full IG report here.

The Washington  Post reports that leading Republicans from the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees have written to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki demanding that the department’s chief of staff, John Gingrich, also be dismissed.

These are good first steps, but we shouldn’t be satisfied with just a few ritual sacrifices. What’s needed is broader accountability at the VA—not just on conference spending, but also in addressing the backlog of benefits claims and in other areas.

If these latest revelations serve as a catalyst for change at the dysfunctional department, that will be a positive development.

Pete Hegseth is the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America, and the former executive director of Vets for Freedom. Hegseth is an infantry officer in the Army National Guard, and has served tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay.