* Inspector general, Congress eyeing conferences
* Scrutiny comes after scandal over GSA party in Las Vegas
* $52,000 allegedly spent on parody video of "Patton"
By Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON, Aug 21 The U.S. Department of
Veterans Affairs spent about $5 million for conferences that are
drawing scrutiny from Congress and the agency's internal
watchdog amid concern about potentially lavish government
conferences and improper gifts to planners.
Months after a scandal and shake-up at the General Services
Administration over a lavish conference there, Congress and the
department's inspector general are looking into two 2011 VA
training conferences in Orlando, Florida, which included $52,000
for a parody video and $84,000 for promotional items such as
"A series of interviews have uncovered questionable
activities and we have notified both the Secretary and Congress
of these issues," the VA inspector general's office said in a
statement issued last week.
"To date, all indications are that the conferences were for
legitimate training purposes."
Representative Darrell Issa, the head of the House Oversight
Committee, wrote Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki on
Aug. 13 seeking more details, including contracts for the $5
million conference and the 18-minute video parodying the opening
of the 1970 movie "Patton."
The VA oversees health and other benefits for 20 million
Issa, a California Republican, said some planners for the
June and August 2011 conferences may have received "improper
gifts" from hotels being considered to host them, such as show
tickets and limousine and helicopter rides
He said the Orlando meetings bore "eerie similarities" to a
lavish $820,000 General Services Administration (GSA) training
conference in 2010. Uproar over it prompted the ouster of the
agency's chief this year and a management shakeup.
The GSA's inspector general also reported last month about a
GSA awards ceremony in November 2010 that cost at least
$268,732. That report drew attacks from Republican lawmakers
about wasteful spending under President Barack Obama.
The VA inspector general's office has said that at least
seven people in the department's Washington headquarters
traveled to Nashville, Tennessee; Dallas; and Orlando to scout
possible locations even though the VA has staff in each of those
cities, Issa wrote.
In a statement, the VA said it was cooperating with the
investigation and Shinseki had removed the purchasing authority
of employees in the work unit being investigated.
Shinseki "will hold accountable any individuals who are
found to have misused taxpayer dollars or violated our standards
of conduct," it said.
The inspector general's office said it expected to have a
report by the end of September.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)