VA’s 11-day, $221K resort stay draws scrutiny

(MILITARY TIMES)   It may not grab as much media attention as the Justice Department’s $16 muffins, but a $221,000 bill for an 11-day conference for Veterans Affairs Department workers at a Scottsdale, Ariz., resort in January has led the House of Representatives to demand more accountability in how much is spent on such meetings.

The conference costs were enough to pay the annual disability compensation of six totally disabled combat veterans.

Although VA spent $289 million last fiscal year and expects to spend $394 million this fiscal year on meetings and conferences, there is no requirement for the agency to provide any details about costs.

A bill passed by the House on Tuesday by voice vote would change that, requiring quarterly accounting of actual expenses of any conference paid for by VA that involves more than 50 people or has costs greater than $20,000. Quarterly reports also would have to include estimates for conference expenses in the next quarter.

This is a watered-down version of the initial restrictions proposed by Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., the original sponsor. Stutzman wanted VA to notify Congress before holding any employee meeting that cost more than $5,000 or involved more than 20 people, a restriction VA officials called unworkable.

Curtis Coy, VA’s deputy undersecretary for economic opportunity, said VA holds daily meetings involving 20 or more employees that would have fallen under Stutzman’s initial proposal.

“Because of the low participant and dollar thresholds, it would include minor gatherings and those events that feature a substantial virtual component,” Coy said

Stutzman said he is not trying to prevent meetings. “While I have no objection to bringing together VA staff and others at a conference, I believe a measure of transparency on the costs is important,” he said.

Passage of the bill comes after a report by the Justice Department inspector general gained wide attention Sept. 30 for mentioning that that agency paid $16 per muffin for one meeting held in Washington, D.C. A closer review showed the $16 cost included meeting space, food and beverages.

The VA conference that got the attention of lawmakers occurred in January at Scottsdale’s Doubletree Paradise Valley Resort. Fifty people from the Veterans Benefits Administration and 10 non-VA workers attended the conference to discuss revisions in how disability ratings are assigned for veterans seeking compensation and health care.

Travel costs for the conference exceeded $90,000, lodging costs were about $30,000 and a contractor who ran the conference was paid more than $97,000, according to a House Veterans’ Affairs Committee report. The conference also incurred $4,000 in costs for audiovisual equipment.

Some members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee staff attended the conference, according to a separate report filed by the committee.

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