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VA pressed on conference spending

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By The Associated Press
Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013, 10:03 p.m.

WASHINGTON — A year after federal investigators disclosed $762,000 in wasteful spending at Department of Veterans Affairs' training conferences, the agency has put into place about half of the recommended changes designed to keep spending in line.

In particular, investigators are calling for an employee manual that spells out what spending practices are not allowed at conferences.

The conferences, held in July and August 2011, have been the subject of congressional hearings and scathing critiques from lawmakers. A hearing on Wednesday before a House oversight committee gave lawmakers the opportunity to review progress.

The inspector general had found that conference planners spent nearly $100,000 on promotional items such as hand sanitizers and pedometers, and they spent nearly $50,000 on a video parody of the movie “Patton.”

Some of those workers who chose the conference site in Orlando, Fla., inappropriately received perks such as spa treatments, concert tickets and limousine and helicopter rides while they reviewed potential conference locations. That money could have been used to improve services for veterans, lawmakers said.

“Our veterans were abused, and I used that word carefully, but I use it deliberately” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Affairs.

Gina Farrissee, who began her job as the VA's assistant secretary for human resources last month, told lawmakers that the VA conducted reviews using outside consultants to find out what went wrong and has issued new policies to ensure greater oversight. For example, any conference costing more than $500,000 is generally not allowed and may only occur if the VA secretary grants a waiver. She also noted a ban on spending for entertainers or promotional gifts.

Farrissee said the department is tasking senior executives with responsibility for ensuring that each conference meets the department's training and spending criteria.

Richard Griffin, deputy inspector general for the department, said the VA's response to the conference criticism was aggressive, thorough and addressed a chief shortcoming in that “nobody was in charge” of the Orlando conferences.

Griffin said the employee manual, scheduled to be released in December, was an important recommendation that remains unfilled.

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