By Tim Carpenter
A Kansas Republican lawmaker questioned Wednesday spending by the Department of Veterans Affairs on alcohol, concert tickets and spa treatments at training conferences in Florida.
U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a member of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said he was alarmed the VA budgeted $9 million for a series of conferences last year now subject to an internal investigation. As much as $5 million was spent on two training gatherings for VA employees at the center of this controversy.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki ordered an independent review of department training policies and procedures.
"With each passing day," Huelskamp said, "additional information comes to light regarding these very serious allegations of abuse of taxpayer dollars."
In addition to alcohol, spa sessions and concert tickets, the VA gave participants gifts of watches. The VA also hired a Gen. George Patton impersonator.
Huelskamp took offense to the VA's allocation of $52,000 for videos that portrayed the department's bureaucrats as heroes rather than honoring men and women in uniform.
"While veterans are fighting every day to work through the maze of Washington red tape, it is shameful for the VA -- or any government agency -- to waste money like this," the congressman said.
Huelskamp urged Shinseki to promptly disclose everything he knows about the conferences. More information is expected to be make public in September with release of a VA inspector general's report.
The conferences, "Innovative Solutions for a Strategic Workforce," were in July and August 2011 at the Marriott World Center in Orlando.
Rep. Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican and chairman of the House VA committee, and the panel's ranking Democrat, Rep. Bob Filner, of California, have criticized the conferences.
On Wednesday, the VA in Washington, D.C., released a statement expressing remorse for "misuse of taxpayer funds" for the production of a parody of Patton. The statement said the department adopted new rules for human resources training conferences to "reflect our continuing commitment to safeguarding taxpayer dollars."
"VA remains committed to working with Congress in its oversight role and will respond appropriately to congressional requests for information," the statement said.