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Federal Office May Have Saved Less on Training Than It Claimed

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Mindful of tightening federal budgets, the Homeland Security Department's top watchdog said that in the spring, it saved taxpayers about $188,000 by holding "all-hands" training sessions for its agents who investigate employee misconduct, according to a press release issued last month.

The department's acting inspector general, Charles K. Edwards, said in the June 28 press release that the agency had endeavored to rein in training costs.

"Prudent spending is a key goal at the (Office of Inspector General) these days, as it is across the Federal government," Edwards said. "And, as this office is charged with oversight of DHS, it's especially important that we set a good fiscal example."

How good of an example is in question, as expense records obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting show that the department's inspector general spent more than $482,000 -- including $420,475 on travel costs alone -- to send all of its 261 criminal investigators, supervisors and support staff to the two one-week Denver conference sessions in April and May. However, in its press release, the inspector general's office said the training cost $342,906.

The Denver conference planners estimated the cost would have been $531,003 if the various training programs had been participated in individually, as in years past, the press release states. The planners also negotiated lower lodging fees, some free amenities and discounted equipment.

Planning records show organizers also estimated significant savings by cutting back training hours, particularly legal updates, which they reduced from three days to a half-day.

The internal documents on expenses come from the inspector general's budget office, which tracks payments made, according to the agency's Office of Counsel, which released the records following a Freedom of Information Act request.

The press release figures were provided by the agency's investigations training office, which organized the event and estimated the cost savings, agency spokesman William Hillburg said. He declined to comment on the disparity between the dollar amounts listed in the public announcement and costs enumerated in the internal documents.

"We're not going to respond to it," Hillburg said. "We have the correct figure."

The difference between public statements and internal documents has raised concerns among agents inside the beleaguered agency, which will be the focus of a planned House subcommittee hearing next month.

The House Subcommittee on Government Organization, Efficiency and Financial Management plans to examine the inspector general's investigations and case management stemming from a series of CIR reports on a federal grand jury probe into allegations that a Texas branch office fabricated investigative activity and reports ahead of an internal inspection last fall.

As a result of the FBI and U.S. Justice Department-led grand jury probe, top officials for the inspector general's investigations office have been placed on administrative leave or reassigned. Among those are Thomas M. Frost, the inspector general's top criminal investigator, and a deputy, John Ryan, who were placed on leave weeks before the first conference session in April. Two other high-ranking officials in the office's headquarters have been reassigned since, and roughly half of the agency's McAllen, Texas, branch office has been placed on administrative leave as well.

The homeland security inspector general's role is to police fraud, waste and abuse within the federal government's third-largest department. In a time of budget austerity, other federal agencies and departments have postponed or scaled back conferences. That's particularly true after the embarrassment wrought by the Government Services Administration scandal, in which that agency's inspector general found officials had spent lavishly on an $823,000 training conference outside of Las Vegas in 2010.

In recent years, the Homeland Security Department has focused on using government office space and facilities for conferences and meetings, rather than renting more costly meeting space, department spokesman Matthew Chandler wrote in an email.

"More conferences are now being held locally and Components and offices are increasing the use of video teleconferencing while also strengthening internal management oversight and controls," Chandler wrote.

For the Denver conference sessions, other costs included $61,663 for things like training materials, seminars on homicide investigations, training on job hazards like snakebites and a $7,500 video on corruption produced for the conference. One speaker was TV personality and journalist Chris Hansen, a correspondent for NBC News' "Dateline," whom agency spokesman Hillburg said paid his own way and volunteered his services to the office.

Perhaps mindful of the perception of holding a conference during lean budget times, Frost wrote to a subordinate in the inspector general's office in a February email that discussed the program's planning: "Make sure you don't call this a conference."

The homeland security watchdog agents are mandated to receive periodic legal training, and previous plans had been delayed because of funding restraints triggered last year by Congress' budget impasse.

The inspector general's office said in the press release that a high percentage of employees who attended the training program and responded to a survey said the training and instructors were high-quality and offered material that was relevant to their jobs.

Hillburg added that seminars on homicide investigations and trauma training are relevant because agents probe shootings with local law enforcement and "our agents work in desert areas and are exposed to snakes, etc."

No other homeland security inspector general sub-office, such as auditors or inspectors, have hosted similar "all-hands" training, Hillburg said. Inspector General Edwards acknowledged in the earlier statement that the Denver training conference was the largest training program the office had ever had.

"And it came at a crucial time, as we are realigning our investigative priorities and resources to meet new challenges,'' Edwards said in the statement.

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