The Department of Veterans Affairs is facing scrutiny from the Inspector General’s office and budget watchdogs in the Congress because two training conferences last summer in Florida cost somewhere between three and nine million dollars. The VA said through a spokesman that the conferences were for legitimate training purposes. What the IG and Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee are interested in, are the allegations that the VA employees received gifts that include spa treatments, concert tickets and watches. Criticism also came from the Democratic caucus, specifically Rep. Bob Filner (D-CA) also has doubts about the management in the VA that approved the spending in the first place.
Much of the political discussion in this country is focused on government spending and how to trim extraneous expenditures from the budgets of bloated organizations. In fact, a month before the conferences, VA officials testified before the House Veterans Affairs Committee that then-prospective legislation would burden the department with requirements to notify Congress when the department spent money, such as for employee-only gatherings that cost more than $20,000. This comes on the heels of the IG investigation that found that the General Services Administration’s $800,000 employee training program in Las Vegas, NV was not much more than a taxpayer-funded getaway. Reports now indicate that over 75 GSA conferences are being investigated for similar problems.
The VA’s expensive training conferences were reported to the IG via their hotline – the whistle-blower has not been identified – and the IG immediately involved the HVAC. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said in a statement that the VA is attempting to reduce their costs for travel, training, and other things across the board, but that the actions of those involved were “unacceptable,” and has limited purchasing power in the organization while the investigation is underway.
The Department of Defense is also cracking down on abuse of funds, at least within the ranks. General William “Kip” Ward was named the first commander of the AFRICOM, responsible for US Military interaction with 53 African nations (excluding Egypt) in 2007. However, last year he resigned in disgrace – if disgrace includes a retirement party held in Virgina with all the pageantry and farewell expected with such an event. However, he has since stayed on active duty – serving in a lower billeted position and is facing a reduction in rank – while the IG investigated his use of funds. The report was delivered to Secretary Leon Panetta and obtained by the AP in a Freedom of Information Act request.
The report finds that while Gen. Ward was not derelict in his official duty, he did use taxpayer funds for 5-star accommodations, spa treatments, vanity publishing, and – media-favorite example – his wife purchased Snickers bars, saying the general would have “a couple of dollars” for them. Under Army regulations, if a four-star general is not serving in a four-star command position, the general is then technically a two-star general. Secretary Panetta’s decision is due at the end of the week.
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