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Department of Veterans Affairs' spending for conferences triples over 6 years

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By Bloomberg News
Friday, Oct. 5, 2012, 8:32 p.m.
 

WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs, under fire for unauthorized and wasteful spending at two Florida conferences, has more than tripled its expenditures for such events over six years.

Taxpayers have funded about $295 million for the conferences, according to records obtained in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. The agency has paid for almost 1,600 overnight gatherings attended by at least 50 VA employees since 2005.

The department's spending on such events jumped to $77.7 million in 2011 from $24 million in 2005. The amount has increased every year since 2006, when it dipped to $21.6 million, rising even as lawmakers warned the agency to ensure VA funding increases were used to support veterans.

Josh Taylor, a VA spokesman, didn't immediately respond to email and phone messages seeking comment.

John Sepulveda, the VA's assistant secretary for human resources, resigned amid the fallout from the conference scandal. He was listed as a speaker at the two human resources events held at the Marriott International Inc. resort near Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

The department announced his resignation a day before the Oct. 1 release of an inspector general's report that found VA employees accepted gifts such as massages, Rockettes tickets, helicopter rides and limousine services. They also incurred $762,000 in unauthorized or wasteful expenses tied to the two gatherings, according to the document.

The inspector general said the two events cost more than $6 million, more than the $5 million that VA officials had estimated.

They weren't the most expensive, according to the documents obtained through the FOIA request, which was filed on April 25.

A Bloomberg News analysis showed federal agencies weren't complying with the 20-day deadline the law sets for agencies to release requested information. Nineteen of 20 cabinet-level agencies disobeyed the law requiring the disclosure of public information in that time period.

Three of the four costliest VA events were for financial management training. They included the most expensive conference, a $6.3 million gathering in San Francisco in August 2010 attended by 1,360 employees, according to the VA records.

Coming in at No. 2 was a $5.8 million financial-training conference in Nashville held in March-April 2011 with 1,480 VA employees. A similar event in Dallas in December 2010 ranked No. 4, with a cost of about $4.4 million.

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