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The Veterans Affairs Department paid $52,000 to produce a video parodying the war movie "Patton" that was shown at two training conferences last year. The spending and contracting associated with the two conferences — which had a combined price tag of $5 million — are now subject of an inspector general's investigation.
The 15-minute was shown only twice, according to congressional sources, and used a paid actor to parody the iconic opening scene of "Patton," in which World War II Gen. George Patton delivered a rousing speech to his troops in front of a massive American flag. The video was released by the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., in an Aug. 13 letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, criticized VA's conference planners for hiring an outside contractor to produce the video, even though VA has videographers and editors on staff.
VA's Office of Inspector General is investigating allegations of wasteful spending and improper gifts at the two human resources training conferences in July and August 2011 in Orlando, Fla. VA said it spent a total $5 million on the conferences.
VA issued a statement Wednesday apologizing for the video.
"This parody should never have been produced and this misuse of taxpayer funds is completely unacceptable," VA said. "This event took place over a year ago and we have already adopted new rules that reflect our continuing commitment to safeguarding taxpayer dollars."
VA said it is cooperating with the IG's investigation and it has removed the purchasing authority of employees under investigation.
"Secretary Shinseki has clearly stated that the people who serve our veterans are keepers of the public trust, and that working for the Department of Veterans Affairs is a privilege," VA said. "VA will hold accountable any individuals who are found to have misused taxpayer dollars or violated our standards of conduct."
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and ranking Democrat Bob Filner of California sent Shinseki a letter Aug. 16 asking for more information on how much VA spent on conferences each year. The letter said that VA has at various times told lawmakers that its 2011 conference budget was $20 million, over $100 million, or that an accurate number was not available.
That is unacceptable, the lawmakers said.
"It is essential that we be given factual information about VA's conference spending," they wrote. "If VA spent roughly $20 million on conferences ... it raises questions about the propriety of the HR conferences in Orlando consuming anywhere from 25 to 45 percent of VA's entire conference budget for the year. If [the] $100 million figure ... is accurate, it raises questions of excessive conference spending in a tight fiscal environment. Finally, if VA has no reliable data at all, it raises questions about whether adequate financial controls and oversight of VA conferences had ever existed."
Congressional sources who were briefed on the IG's preliminary findings say investigators are reviewing roughly $200,000 in questionable spending for the Orlando conferences.
Besides the "Patton" video, the alleged wasteful spending being reviewed by the IG includes:
• $84,000 in promotional items distributed to the conferences' 1,829 attendees, including pens, highlighters, hand sanitizers and USB flash drives with VA's logo.
• $13,000 for at least seven employees from VA's Washington headquarters to go on scouting trips to Nashville, Dallas and Orlando to look for possible locations to hold the conferences.
• $3,000 for two photographers.
Congressional sources also told Federal Times that VA employees who organized the conferences may have illegally accepted gifts from hotels they were scouting. Those alleged gifts may have included free rides in helicopters and stretch limousines, lodging, food, alcohol, concert tickets, spa treatments, gift baskets and embroidered pillow cases.
The watchdog group Project on Government Oversight said the allegations involving improper gifts are most concerning, since those gifts may have undermined the procurement process. Those allegations are typical of contracting violations, POGO spokesman Joe Newman said last week.
The IG has not yet reached any conclusion on those allegations. It will likely release its report by the end of September, and lawmakers are expected to hold hearings soon after.
Issa said the VA conferences "bear eerie similarities to the now infamous 2010 General Services Administration conference in Las Vegas." But Issa noted that the $5 million tab for VA's two conferences was "significantly more than the 2010 GSA conference," which cost $823,000.
Issa also said that, as with the GSA scandal, waste occurred in the VA conference's pre-planning stage. Issa said VA had employees in Nashville, Dallas and Orlando who could have scouted possible locations, and avoided the travel costs involved with flying Washington employees around the country.
According to the schedules posted online for the two conferences, attendees were provided complimentary shuttle services to the Walt Disney World resort, entertainment from a comedian, a poolside movie night, game nights, karaoke, and meditation, Pilates and water aerobics classes.
Miller said last week that investigators should look into those recreational events.
"The key question is whether taxpayers funded what were ‘down time' activities," Miller said. "If that turns out to be the case, I see no excuse for it. That is not a function of government."