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Hearing of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee - VA Conference Spending Accountability

Hearing

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

Good morning, this hearing will come to order.

We are here to examine, in detail, VA's conference spending, particularly following the VA Inspector General's report highlighting the wasteful spending that occurred at HR conferences in Orlando, Florida in 2011. We will also examine VA's response to Congress regarding its conference spending. Fundamentally, this hearing is about accountability…accountability to veterans, to taxpayers, and to this oversight Committee. I am concerned on all fronts. Let me briefly share the reason why.

On August 16, 2012, the Ranking Member and I sent a letter to the Secretary asking a series of questions related to VA's conference spending. In that letter we referenced the conflicting testimony we received over the course of the 112th Congress regarding VA's total expenditures. First we were told $20 million was spent in FY 2011 on conferences; then we were told it was a little over $100 million; finally we were told that no accurate, reliable figure on conference expenditures exists. Because of these discrepancies, we asked for clarification of VA's total conference spending for that year and prior years, as well as a breakdown of all individual conferences.

Rather than receiving a coherent response clearly explaining these discrepancies and answering all of the questions we posed, VA produced a data dump of information to the Committee under the cover of a letter by Assistant Secretary for Congressional and Legislative Affairs, Joan Mooney, on August 24, 2012. Even though I discussed what I believed was the lack of a response to our letter at the Committee's September 25, 2012, hearing, we were not informed by Ms. Mooney until a week later that her letter, and the information provided along with it, served as the Secretary's official response.

But even assuming what was provided in August was the Secretary's official response, our questions still weren't answered. And those questions that were answered conflicted with prior VA testimony. For example, when we tallied up the total VA conference expenditures for FY 2011 based on the information VA provided it came to $86.5 million. This represents the fourth answer provided to the Committee this Congress on VA conference spending in FY 2011: First $20 million; then over $100 million; then no reliable number; and now $86.5 million.

The confusion over what VA's actual conference spending is reminds me of the Inspector General's report on the Orlando conferences in which they found VA's reported expenditures were wrong. Absent any clear response, I am left to wonder whether VA, at best, has no reliable controls on its spending or, at worst, is hiding something from this Committee. I plan to get into this more during questioning.

Further, after reading that VA Chief of Staff John Gingrich would, going forward, be approving all overseas travel on behalf of VA, I asked staff to inquire about VA's spending on foreign travel. I wanted to know how much was spent on overseas trips over the last three years, what the purposes of the trips were, and who attended. This straightforward request was made in late August and repeated multiple times. Yet I still have no answers.

I have no answers which would help us understand whether the pictures posted on the VA Canteen Service's Twitter feed and Facebook page of a European field trip, which everyone can see here [point to television monitor], represents evidence of a boondoggle or not. At best, these are pictures of a privately funded vacation posted on a government Facebook page. At worst, this was a taxpayer financed trip with no known legitimate purpose. The point is that if VA refuses to respond timely to requests for information, we have no way of knowing except by exercising the extraordinary step of the Committee issuing subpoenas.

Unfortunately, lengthy delays or not responding to requests at all has become the norm. I have asked staff to compile a list of all outstanding requests I or my staff has made since our accountability hearing in September. Of the 91 total requests of VA made by letter, email, over the phone, or in meetings, VA has only answered 16 of them. 75 requests are outstanding and 66 of those are either past two weeks old or beyond VA's agreed date of delivery. In a touch of irony, VA's testimony for this hearing was almost 8 hours late.

We clearly have a problem here and I intend to get to the bottom of it, both with respect to conference spending and VA's relationship with this oversight Committee. As an aside, I asked Ms. Mooney to testify today regarding these and other matters but was told she would be on vacation. She said that all of her official actions could be addressed by the Deputy Secretary in her absence. Mr. Gould, I trust you are prepared for that.

I yield now to the Ranking Member.

Before I yield to the Deputy Secretary for his opening statement I'd like to ask the panel to rise and raise their right hands so they can be sworn in. Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Thank you. Please be seated.


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