By Danielle Ivory and Kathleen Miller
The U.S. 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 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.
"We are just seeing the tip of the iceberg," Representative Jeff Miller, the Florida Republican who heads the House veterans affairs committee, said in an e-mailed statement. "It is clear that VA has been on a conference spending spree the last few years, with little oversight or accountability. Why VA felt it had to host multiple million dollar destination conferences during an ongoing fiscal crisis defies reason."
Josh Taylor, a VA spokesman, didn't immediately respond to e-mail 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 in 2011 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.
San Francisco Conference
The inspector general also 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 today 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.
Nashville to Dallas
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.
The VA spent $4.5 million on an April 2010 medical conference in Las Vegas, the third most expensive event listed in the department records.
The agency spent the most money on conferences in Las Vegas, where it has hosted more than 50 events at a cost of at least $27 million since 2005. Nashville came in second, with more than 30 conferences totaling at least $15 million.
About 10 conferences were listed as costing zero dollars. The VA's FOIA office didn't immediately provide an explanation.
The VA's event scandal followed the backlash over a General Services Administration conference in Las Vegas that cost more than $826,000 and led to the resignation of GSA Administrator Martha Johnson.