Another federal government agency, the Department of Veterans Affairs, is under fire for wasteful conference spending. In response, the VA has a rolled out a new set of guidelines to keep meeting spending in check.

In a report issued by the VA’s Office of the Inspector General on September 30, the IG cited $762,000 in excessive spending for two human resources training conferences held in July and August of 2011 in Orlando. Combined, the two conferences, held at the Marriott World Centre, had about 1,800 attendees and cost about $6.1 million.

The report highlighted $280,698 in costs (on audiovisual, food and beverage, and other services) that were over the amount contracted with the hotel; $154,000 in contractor travel paid for by the VA; $49,516 to produce a General George S. Patton parody video; $97,906 on “unnecessary promotional items”; and $10,666 in “unnecessary costs associated with pre-conference planning,” among a long list of questionable expenses. Further, 11 VA employees tasked with conference management duties improperly accepted gifts from contractors seeking to do business or already doing business with the VA.

The report found that the VA does not have effective accounting practices for budgeting, managing, and tracking conference costs. Further, it notes that employees who were not authorized to do so made significant conference purchases. “This lack of proper oversight resulted in imprudent expenditures by senior employees, conference planners, and other HR&A [human resources and administration] employees.” It called out John Sepulveda, the assistant secretary for human resources and administration at the VA, for abdicating his responsibilities. Sepulveda resigned following the release of the report while two other employees were placed on administrative leave.

 

New Oversight at the VA

The VA quickly responded to the probe with new guidelines to check spending and provide more oversight. Included among the changes is a ban on conferences costing more than $500,000 (although waivers can be requested).

For conferences over $100,000, costs must be approved by the deputy secretary of the VA. For conferences over $20,000 but less than $100,000, the assistant secretary or undersecretary of the VA must approve costs. The sponsoring office may approve meetings that cost less than $20,000.

The VA also established a four-part conference-approval process (concept, development, execution, and reporting) for all meetings with a budget exceeding $20,000. In the first phase, planners present their proposals for meetings at a quarterly review meeting. Next, the sponsor makes the business case for the meeting and lays out the plan. In the execution phase, the meeting is contracted. All site visits must be approved and are limited to situations where phone calls, Web searches, and video or teleconferencing options are insufficient. All contracts of more than $25,000 require legal and technical review. Deviations of more than 5 percent over the approved budget will require additional approvals. In the reporting phase, all costs and processes will be reviewed.

The VA’s new meeting guidelines come six months after the General Services Administration was the subject of a federal investigation that found excessive spending on a 2010 conference in Las Vegas. The GSA scandal sparked congressional outrage and led to new White House guidelines on government meetings.