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"The truce is off," the House Veterans Affairs' Committee chairman declared Wednesday in an abrupt and explosive end to a hearing on questionable spending on conferences and travel within the Veterans Affairs Department.
"Expect more oversight and investigation," said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Va., as he gaveled to a close a hearing called to focus on the $86.5 million VA spent last year on conferences and workshops — a hearing that unexpectedly expanded to questions about foreign travel by VA workers.
Tension had been building between VA and Congress because the department has been slow to respond to questions about spending on conferences, including exactly how much has been spent. Miller and his staff came up with the $86.5 million total for 2011, a figure that Todd Grams, VA's chief financial officer, did not dispute.
Miller and other committee members hammered VA witnesses about why hundreds of questions about conference spending asked in the last six months have not been answered.
The discussion went off the rails, however, when Miller began asking questions about photographs posted on VA's Facebook website of a trip to Italy by employees of the Veterans Canteen Service.
Gould and other VA officials were not prepared for those questions, because Miller had given no advance warning that he would ask them.
Labeled on Facebook as a year old, the set of photos depicted people sitting around an outdoor table with what appeared to be wine glasses. The photos were said to have been taken during a "side trip" to southern Italy "to explore gastronomic ecstasy, explore some incredible locations and visit with VCS expatriate and former chief operating officer Ralph Shalda."
A comment posted by the Veterans Canteen Service read: "Research is tough but someone has to do it."
After the hearing, VA spokesman Nathan Naylor said the photos were taken during personal travel, not government-funded travel, and should not have been posted on a VA website. "We regret those pictures were on the site," Naylor said.
Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., ranking Democrat on the veterans' committee, said she was unhappy that Miller had not told her about the Facebook photos before bringing them up at the hearing, comments that committee aides said could bode for a difficult relationship between Republicans and Democrats on a traditionally bipartisan panel.
Miller, however, didn't back down, saying any embarrassment for VA employees is the fault of VA bureaucrats, not the committee trying to get explanations about how taxpayer money is being spent.
"I had a nice conversation with Deputy Secretary Gould yesterday on the phone, and thought we could work together, but it appears not," Miller said. "Frankly, I'm tired of waiting for them to answer basic questions and tired of their excuses. If they don't like getting more and more questions from us about conference spending and travel, maybe they could answer some of our questions."
Gould conceded during the hearing that VA controls on spending were lax, and said new safeguards have been put in place so that senior agency officials have a bigger role in approving expenses.
"I apologize to veterans and this committee," Gould said. "It is unacceptable this money was wasted."