VA report highlights $762,000 in questionable conference expenses

WASHINGTON-- Perhaps the $50,000 taxpayer-funded motivational video featuring a Gen. George S. Patton look-alike, played at the Veterans Affairs conferences, should have included a lecture on fiscal discipline.

That seemed to be the message from a Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general’s report released Monday spotlighting $762,000 in questionable expenses, including the Patton parody video, for two training conferences in Orlando, Fla., last year. 

The report also assailed 11 VA employees for accepting improper gifts, including massages, limo rides, meals and tickets to the Rockettes.

The video, a parody of the opening scene from the 1970 film starring George C. Scott as Patton in front of a giant U.S. flag, was a portion of more than $6 million spent on the conferences.

Taxpayer-funded government conferences have come under congressional scrutiny after an $823,000 Las Vegas-area conference for General Services Administration employees that featured a mind reader. 

Indeed, reaction from Capitol Hill to the VA inspector general’s report was swift.

Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said the findings demonstrate a "clear lack of leadership and accountability when it comes to VA senior leadership being good stewards of taxpayer dollars.’’

Even a year after the events took place, the inspector general said, the department was unable to account for all of the conference-related costs.

"Beyond the individual ethical lapses, which cast all federal employees in a bad light, the management failures resulted in unnecessary costs and unauthorized commitments that diminished these legitimate training events,’’ VA Inspector General George J. Opfer said.

The VA, acknowledging "serious lapses in oversight, judgment, and stewardship,’’ said that Secretary Eric Shinseki has taken "immediate action to address the issues outlined in the IG report to strengthen oversight, improve accountability, safeguard taxpayer dollars and help ensure such incidents do not occur again.’’

The department’s top human resources official, criticized in the report for failing to provide proper oversight, has resigned. The  VA announced that two employees have been placed on administrative leave as their actions and those of other employees are reviewed.

"Employees who have misused taxpayer dollars or violated VA standards of conduct will be held accountable,’’ the VA said in a statement.

The House recently approved the Government Spending Accountability Act to establish spending limits and new reporting requirements for government conferences.

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richard.simon@latimes.com

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