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'Truce is over': Fired-up congressional panel vows strict VA oversight

Members of Congress angrily vowed Wednesday to crank its investigative floodlights far brighter on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, accusing agency leaders of dodging direct questions on travel and conference spending, failing to disclose a gathering in Las Vegas, and exhibiting “total incompetence” as veterans wait in record-long lines for medical help.

During a hearing before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said that one day after he and VA Deputy Secretary Scott Gould had held a “civil conversation” on the same issues, Gould’s vague responses to the panel's precise and lengthy interrogation “raised the hackles on the back of my neck.”

“The truce is over. It lasted less than 24 hours. Expect much more oversight from this committee,” Miller said. “Expect more questions from this committee because they’re coming — in great volumes.”

The fiery, two-hour hearing was primarily held to examine how the VA plans to prevent future, exorbitant spending lapses like the estimated $9 million the agency doled out for two Orlando gatherings in 2011. During those conferences for VA human resources personnel, the VA invested, for example, $84,000 for VA-branded promotional items, including pens, highlighters and hand sanitizers, according to Office of the Inspector General. But at the close of the hearing, Gould complained the committee’s line of questioning had devolved into “a slap at the employees who work at VA every day.”

Miller interrupted Gould.

“No, no, no, no,” Miller said, his voice rising. “Don’t you ever accuse a Democrat or a Republican on this committee of slapping any of the hardworking 300,000 VA employees. Rest assured, it’s the leadership that we’re concerned with.”

Earlier, Gould opened by describing the VA’s beefed-up oversight to block other Orlando-type escapades, which he called: “abdications of responsibility, failures of judgment, and serious lapses of stewardship.”

Those tightened measures include requirements that all VA conference planning now include “a detailed business case analysis.” And, from this point, any VA gatherings estimated to cost $20,000 to $100,000 must receive prior approval by a VA under secretary or assistant secretary, conferences estimated to cost $100,000 to $500,000 must be approved by the deputy secretary, and conferences costing more than $500,000 “are generally not permitted,” he said. 

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But the hearing quickly turned into larger prosecution of VA leadership by the committee. The members complained about what they called the VA’s chronic lack of responses — or its fuzzy answers — to dozens of congressional requests for information on items ranging from VA spending to its internal discipline of employees caught making ethical errors. 

For example, on Aug. 16, Congress asked the VA to disclose how much it spent during 2011 on conferences. According to Miller, the VA first reported the price of those events was $20 million but later amended that figure to more than $100 million. At Wednesday’s hearing, VA Chief Financial Officer Todd Grams testified that the events cost, in total, $86.5 million.

Miller asked Gould if he “or anyone at the table” had been ordered to withhold information from Congress. Gould responded: “No.” Miller then blasted VA leaders for failing to answer 75 specific congressional questions.

“Unfortunately, lengthy delays or not responding to requests at all has become normal for VA,” Miller said. “We clearly have a problem here.”

The Orlando conferences had served as the initial spark for ramped up congressional scrutiny of the agency. But several members said the VA’s lack of answers had left them increasingly irked — and several members sounded so Wednesday, their voices sometimes breaking or shaking, including Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan.

“It’s been 106 days since I asked some of these questions. I have asked for: a list of the attendees at the July 2011 conference in Orlando; a list of attendees at the August 2011 conference in Orlando; a list of individuals involved in planning these conferences; the names and titles of employees who are being held accountable. Why have you refused to answer all of these?” Huelskamp asked Gould. “Those were all ignored. When will you find it out — in another 106 days? These are simple questions.

“This is an issue of competence, the failure to either know the answers or refuse to answer them,” Huelskamp added. “It’s about a gentleman in Syracuse, Kan., who had to drive 522 miles to the nearest VA hospital. In that time, you could fly folks to Orlando for a great conference. And you won’t even tell the American people who attended? Either you’re trying to hide something or it’s total incompetence.”

In response, Gould testified that VA leaders “understand we have an obligation to respond to Congress.” He further testified that, following the many information requests from Congress, the VA has supplied 35,000 documents and answered 6,000 policy questions and attended 100 hearings and 1,100 staff briefings.

“Sir,” Gould added, “you can sit here and shake your head, but the reality is there’s a tremendous amount of information that flows to this committee and others on a daily basis by a very competent team.”

But Congress has grown so impatient with the VA’s silence on the issues, Miller said, that he and other congressional members and their staffs have began perusing VA’s Facebook and Twitter accounts to try to independently piece together a more complete list of the VA conferences and training seminars.

Miller discovered, for example, posts on the VA Facebook page about a VA senior management conference at Las Vegas' Venetian Hotel in August 2010. That event included teachings on “yoga, massage therapy (and) acupuncture,” according to the VA Facebook post, which showed pictures of people — ostensibly VA employees — getting massages. Beneath those images, someone commented: “Sounds like my kind of conference!” That observation was followed by a comment posted by the administrator of the Facebook page for VA’s Veterans Canteen Services: “It’s amazing how immediate the results are!”

Miller asked Gould why the VA had not mentioned the Vegas conference when Congress had requested a full accounting of all VA conferences since 2005.

Gould testified that he had no explanation other than the VA has hosted thousands of conferences since 2005.

That post on the VA Facebook page was removed shortly after the hearing. 

“The perception out there, if you’re a taxpayer just barely getting by ... is you’ve got one set of rules for people in government, and (another set for) the rest of us out there in the real world, said Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn. “And perception is reality.

"It’s embarrassing for me to go home and try to explain to people why their money is being wasted,” added Roe, a physician. “I have veterans who come up and say, ‘I can’t get into a hospital down here, Doc. I’m in a line 40 miles long.’ And then they show me this plush event that occurred in Orlando. It’s very hard to explain that to people. It’s embarrassing for the 300,000 hardworking VA people who are then tagged with this.” 

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