The Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on marketing materials and promotional items for a pair of conferences that cost taxpayers at least $6.1 million.
Included was $50,000 on a parody video of the Oscar-winning movie Patton and a request to have the Washington Redskins cheerleaders appear at a kick-off event.
The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform released a staff report Wednesday on the conferences held in 2011 at the "lavish" Marriott World Center Resort in Orlando near Disney World, which the report said included at least $762,000 in unauthorized and wasteful expenses. The VA paid $863 for an employee to operate karaoke equipment and $98,000 on items such as notebooks, water bottles, and "fitness walking kits," among other materials.
"The VA’s primary mission is to serve the nation’s veterans in the most efficient manner possible," the report said. "Any money wasted on events unrelated to that mission does a disservice to the veterans that the VA is meant to serve."
Conference planners initially traveled to Nashville, Dallas, and Orlando to scout potential locations for the conferences. According to the report, the planners improperly accepted gifts from hotels they were considering, including meals, spa treatments, gift baskets, show tickets, and limousine and helicopter rides.
The planners also sought to "hype" the conferences, designed as training events for human resources employees, by organizing a pre-conference kick-off. When one of the VA marketing consultants was told in an email that the Redskins cheerleaders would be unable to attend the event but "ambassadors" would be available, the consultant asked about the appearance of the stand-ins.
"Could you please explain a little about them? As in do they wear uniforms? Have pom poms…etc," the consultant wrote in an email.
The planners, who had access to a $450,000 marketing budget for the conferences, "guessed at budget figures, inflated expenditures, and purchased unnecessary items" unrelated to training employees, the report said. After planners inquired about the source of the money for the conferences, VA officials told them that "you don’t have anything to worry about" and "[w]e are a large agency with deep pockets."
Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.), chairman of the committee, said at a hearing Wednesday that the VA essentially gave the planners a "blank check." He asked why the VA needed to market the conference at all.
"These are employees," he said. "You are paying them to come. You can order them to come; you can encourage them to come."
"Why do you need to advertise?" he continued. "These aren’t buyers. These are in fact recipients of training that they need, and it’s a bit of a perk to get away from the day-to-day job."
John Sepulveda, former assistant secretary for human resources and administration at the VA, considered the kick-off for the conferences to be a "signature event," according to an email from a VA employee. He initially told inspector general investigators that he did not have any knowledge of or involvement with the Patton parody video.
However, documents indicate that Sepulveda viewed the video prior to the conferences and agreed to the concept of showing the video there, according to the report.
Sepulveda invoked the Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination and declined to testify at the hearing.
Gina Farrisee, who recently replaced Sepulveda, said in testimony that the VA has issued internal policies "to strengthen oversight, improve accountability and safeguard taxpayer dollars" in response to an inspector general report on the conferences.
The revelations of millions in questionable spending at the VA conferences come after other government agencies—the Internal Revenue Service and General Services Administration—were also found to have spent millions in taxpayer dollars on similar events.
The VA itself has faced intense congressional scrutiny amid a swelling backlog of more than 700,000 in veterans’ benefit claims. Investigators have also found gross mismanagement and negligence by hospital staff at multiple VA facilities, resulting in 18 preventable deaths since 2011.