WASHINGTON — The House Veterans' Affairs Committee warned the VA Wednesday to expect much more aggressive oversight in the coming months as lawmakers review the department's conference and travel spending.
"The truce is over," said Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida, the committee's Republican chairman, at the conclusion of an often contentious hearing on spending at employee training conferences.
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 one employee, an assistant secretary, resigned.
Miller's committee has sought more detailed information from the VA about the department's overall training and travel budgets. He said dozens of queries appear to have been ignored, while Gould said that the sheer amount of information sought as well as the need to ensure accuracy required time.
The committee chairman said that while he could get little information from the VA, social media websites used by VA workers 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?" Miller said.
Gould said that the VA is working to improve its health care at every turn and that can include leaving the country on occasion to hear from leaders in various health fields.
At one point, Gould said he was not aware of the pictures that the committee reviewed and posted as part of a slideshow. However near the end, he told lawmakers he had subsequently learned that the pictures came from a personal vacation. While the pictures should not have been made part of the department's social media outlets, he wanted lawmakers to know the VA did not fund the trip. He also took some exception to the committee making an issue of the pictures.
"I think that we need to think carefully when we talk about culture, that there are 320,000 hard-working employees at VA that don't like having their reputation damaged and sullied by this kind of activity," Gould said.
The remarks prompted an explosion from Miller.
"I have not one time slapped at any of the 300,000 VA employees. I have slapped at the leadership," Miller said. "And your responses in the last 15 minutes have just raised what we call `the hackles' on the back of my neck again."