By Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - 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 pens.
"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 August 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 military veterans.
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)