WASHINGTON -- The latest government conference scandal involving the Department of Veterans Affairs got more embarrassing Friday when a video surfaced of human resources workers delivering a tin-eared rendition of Michael Jackson's "Beat It."
House committees had already been investigating a pair of VA conferences that took place last July and August in Orlando and cost some $5 million, and earlier this week released a clip parodying General Patton.
But The Huffington Post has obtained more than 70 hours of video spanning most of the rest of the conferences, and while nearly all of it consists of mind-numbing training material, a few moments don't exactly bathe the venerable institution in glory.
Among them are the karaoke video, above, made from footage taken over the course of the conference. The VA workers seem to have intended to poke fun at themselves and perhaps build a sense of camaraderie. The actual karaoke session appears to have occurred after hours.
Also included in the recordings is a live presentation by the actor in the Patton parody, Jim Deken, that may end up compounding anger over the clip because he jokes about the intelligence of Marines.
"You remember we talked about the Marines," Deken quips at one point. "You can always tell a Marine. You just can't tell him very much damn much," he says in what could be seen as an odd remark at an event that spent significant time focusing on the need for workers to treat veterans with the utmost respect.
The Patton video is believed have cost about $52,000 to make, and a bunch of gifts distributed at the conference, such as inscribed pens and hand sanitizer, cost another $84,000. That spending surfaced after a whistleblower tipped off the VA inspector general in April, after the more infamous scandal over a General Services Administration conference in Las Vegas caused controversy.
In a recent letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) declared the VA events bore "eerie similarities" to the Vegas shindig.
So far, the office of Inspector General George Opfer has not found a strong case for Issa's claim.
"A series of interviews have uncovered questionable activities and we have notified both the Secretary and Congress of these issues," said a statement released by the IG's office. "We continue to review documents and conduct interviews. To date, all indications are that the conferences were for legitimate training purposes."
The statement added that the IG was "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 agency expects to release its report by the end of next month.
The VA admitted in its own statement Friday that the unfortunate videos were mistakes, but insisted that controls had already been tightened to ensure money is not wasted.
“Some of this material should never have been produced and misuse of taxpayer funds is completely unacceptable. These events took place over a year ago and we have already adopted new rules that reflect our continuing commitment to safeguarding taxpayer dollars.
“Secretary Shinseki has clearly stated that the people who serve our Veterans are keepers of the public trust, and that working for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is a privilege. The Secretary said that VA will hold accountable any individuals who are found to have misused taxpayer dollars or violated our standards of conduct."
The videos may have been a bad idea, but administration officials familiar with the planning of the event noted that it served as a useful training opportunity for human resources managers in charge of hiring at an agency that needs to replace some 30,000 employees a year, and oversees more than 300,000 workers.
The VA conference wasn't exactly unprecedented, as the agency has been running similar retreats for years. It's even used the same Patton imitator, including during the Bush administration in 2002.
And while it's likely House members will sieze on the videos and continue to link such shenanigans to the GSA mess, administration officials argued that they had already taken many steps to prevent such problems from taking place at government-sponsored events.
The Office of Management and Budget ordered all agencies to review the cash they're dumping on conferences, and put a hold on such events while the review was underway. Subsequent cutbacks are estimated to save some $1.2 billion, including about $600 million in the first half of this year.
In May, the White House ordered another 30 percent in cuts to travel budgets, and required higher-level reviews of any significant spending.
So far, the VA case is mostly embarrassing. But the IG is still looking at the possibility that VA officials may have accepted gifts as inducements to pick a particular site for the expensive conferences. It's also possible that spending could have been abused in ways that have not yet come out.
All the officials involved the the events have been barred from contracting roles at the VA for the time being.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.
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