U.S. Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) sent a second letter to Secretary Eric Shinseki of the Department of Veterans' Affairs (VA) asking for
more details on the conferences held in Orlando in September 2011, which the VA
Office of Inspector General (OIG) has reported included more than $700,000 in excessive or wasteful spending. The OIG also reported that several VA employees
engaged in misconduct in the process of planning the conferences by accepting
improper gifts, such as limousine and helicopter rides, or tickets to a
Last week, the VA OIG released a report finding that VA oversight was weak and ineffective and failed to keep spending in check for the Orlando conferences. Just one day before the report's release, the Assistant Secretary for VA's Human Resources and Administration office resigned from his position.
Upon first learning of the pending IG report in August, Senator Collins wrote to secretary Shinseki about her concerns regarding what appeared to be wasteful travel and meetings and potential misconduct by VA employees. The response from the VA failed to answer the questions about whether the Orlando conferences were just the tip of the iceberg and if similar abuses might be occurring on other conferences. The VA also ignored the question about accountability for the personnel involved in the Orlando conferences.
The most recent letter from Senator Collins includes new questions asking for documented justifications for bonuses given to VA employees for their role in planning some of the most wasteful elements of the Orlando conferences.
The letter is attached.
October 9, 2012
The Honorable Eric Shinseki
Secretary of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Ave., N.W.
Washington, DC 20420
Dear Secretary Shinseki:
I have received Assistant Secretary Joan Mooney's September 20, 2012, response to the letter I sent to you following our phone discussion of August 09, 2012. Between the time we spoke and the time her letter arrived, however, the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) released its report finding that, "
VA's processes and the oversight were too weak, ineffective, and in some instances, nonexistent to ensure that conference costs identified were accurate, appropriate, necessary, and reasonably priced. Accountability and controls were inadequate to ensure effective management and reporting of the dollars spent." As a result of poor management and improper oversight, of the $6.1 million spent on the conferences, as much as $762,000 were reported to have been "unauthorized, unnecessary, and/or wasteful spending."
These findings are inexcusable, given the heroic mission the VA has to serve our nation's veterans, but they are especially disappointing because they should have been preventable. As we've seen with the GSA conferences scandal, abuses that lead to one scandal may just be the tip of the iceberg and a broader review may expose a cultural problem at the agency. In September 2011, the Director of the Office Management and Budget (OMB) issued a directive that all agencies should conduct a review of conference spending and report back to OMB. Such a review by the VA should have uncovered the wasteful spending that took place in Orlando before it was uncovered by the OIG.
I request that you provide the following information no later than October 31, 2012:
1. A copy of the VA report sent to OMB per the September 2011 directive issued by Jacob Lew, then-Director of the OMB.
2. The answers to questions two and three of my previous letter on this matter, dated August 10, 2012, requesting specific information about whether employees who engaged in misconduct while planning the Orlando conferences also worked on other conferences, and if so, which conferences and by what date will the VA review the planning processes and expenditures for those conferences for potential similar abuses and/or wasteful spending?
3. The IG specifically referenced employee awards/bonuses were given in recognition of actions to minimize conference costs, "but [the OIG] identified instances where expenditures were expensive or unnecessary."
a. Please provide the documentation of all awards by title, rank, and amount received to every employee in relation to work on the Orlando conferences.
b. Please provide the award justification documentation for these awards/bonuses specifically given to minimize expenditures.
4. The OIG reported that "five employees were specifically recognized for keeping senior leadership aware of conference issues, despite the same senior leaders acknowledging they were uninvolved in many financial and conference planning decisions."
a. What actions did these employees take to keep senior leadership informed?
b. What actions is the VA taking to recover these bonuses improperly given and received by the senior officials?
5. The OIG reported that "one employee was awarded for his work on the Patton parody video and another was recognized for paying for the use of a karaoke machine. [The OIG] found neither the video nor the karaoke machine particularly valuable to the purpose of the conference."
a. Please provide the VA documentation of these awards detailing how these items enhanced the conference.
b. Are bonuses and awards typically given to VA employees for the procurement of entertainment at conferences?
I ask that you continue to keep me informed of any new developments in this investigation. Thank you for your cooperation and for your service to America's veterans.
SUSAN M. COLLINS
United States Senator