WASHINGTON – Veterans Affairs advisers aftermost year racked up hundreds of bags of dollars in government credit-card bills at bank and affluence hotels, cine theaters and high-end retailers such as Sharper Image and Franklin Covey — and government auditors are investigating, citation accomplished spending abuses.
All told, VA agents answerable $2.6 billion to their government acclaim cards.
The Associated Press, through a Freedom of Information request, acquired the VA account of 3.1 actor purchases fabricated in the 2007 account year. The account offers a abundant attending into the accustomed spending at the government’s added bigger department.
By and large, it reveals few apparent signs of ambiguous spending, with hundreds of purchases at prosthetic, orthopedic and added medical accumulation stores.
But there are assorted accuse that accept bent the eye of government investigators.
At atomic 13 purchases accretion $8,471 were answerable at Sharper Image, a specialty abundance featuring high-tech electronics and gizmos such as automatic barking dogs. In addition, 19 accuse account $1,999.56 were fabricated at Franklin Covey, which sells covering totes and planners geared against accumulated executives.
Government letters in 2004 said these two companies, by advantage of the types of articles they market, would “more acceptable be affairs crooked or claimed use items” to federal employees.
Many of the 14,000 VA advisers with acclaim cards, who assignment at address in Washington and at medical centers about the nation, additionally spent tens of bags of dollars at Wyndham hotels in places such as San Diego, Orlando, Fla., and on the beach in Little Rock, Ark. One-time accuse ranged up to $8,000.
On at atomic six occasions, advisers based at VA address fabricated acclaim agenda accuse at Las Vegas bank hotels accretion $26,198.
VA agent Matt Smith the administration was reviewing these and added purchases as allotment of its accepted blank of agent spending. He acclaimed that abounding of the purchases at Sharper Image and added food included clocks for low-vision veterans, humidifiers, air purifiers, anxiety accessories and basal artist products.
Smith said all the bank auberge expenditures in 2007 were for conferences and accompanying expenses. He said the spending was justified because Las Vegas is a abode area “VA is architecture a new medical centermost and an accretion cardinal of veterans are calling home.”
“The Administration of Veterans Affairs, like abounding accessible and clandestine groups, hosts conferences and affairs in Las Vegas due to the affluence of actor travel, the accommodation of the facilities, and the all-embracing bulk associated with hosting a conference,” he said.
According to VA policy, acquirement cards may be acclimated at hotels to hire appointment apartment or access audiovisual accessories or added items for VA meetings. They should not be acclimated to assets lodging. Auditors continued accept apprenticed the VA to accept behavior to animate use of chargeless appointment rooms. Auditors ahead faulted the bureau for booking apartment at big-ticket bank hotels after affirmation it aboriginal had approved chargeless space.
In the advancing weeks, auditors at the Government Accountability Appointment and the VA ambassador general’s appointment are to affair letters on acquirement agenda use and spending controls at the VA and added agencies. The letters are accepted to appearance abiding problems at the VA, which auditors cited in 2004 for lax spending controls that ashen up to $1.1 million.
The account of accuse provided to the AP gives the vendor, bulk purchased, area and agent name; in best cases it does not announce the specific account purchased. Requests by the AP for lists of the added abstracts in a adapted address were again beneath on aloofness and proprietary grounds.
The VA account shows that some credit-card holders took a bashful route. VA advisers in locations such as Portland, Ore., Gainesville, Fla., and Sheridan, Wyo., had accuse for Motel 6 and Travelodge inns. One VA address agent appears to accept anesthetized up bank hotels by booking at a Holiday Inn Express in Las Vegas for $787.75.
“For government biking and added spending, you accept to be alert of the appearances you’re creating,” said Steve Ellis, carnality admiral of the babysitter accumulation Taxpayers for Common Sense. “If you’re blockage at a auberge at a band in Vegas, you bigger accept a appealing acceptable acumen for why a aborigine should be allotment the stay.”
“It’s not like the VA hasn’t gotten into agitation for acclaim agenda abuses in the past,” he added. “I acquisition it adamantine to absolve any government acquirement from Sharper Image — unless you get article absolutely goofy, it’s action to be cheaper elsewhere.”
Penalties for abusage of government acclaim cards ambit from abeyance of the acclaim agenda to a admonishment and antidotal action. Advisers may be criminally prosecuted for fraud. Added austere cases in contempo years complex purchases of computers, televisions, DVD players and added items that were again awash to accompany or kept for claimed use.
“It’s all actuality looked at,” said Belinda Finn, the VA’s abettor ambassador accepted for auditing, in a blast interview. Pointing to Sharper Image purchases in particular, Finn said abounding of the VA costs articular by the AP aloft austere “red flags.”
“For a lot of the affairs on acquirement cards, to be able you absolutely charge to accumulate a aing watch,” she said. “It’s absolutely the first-level admiral who apperceive what’s action on the most.”
Congressional leaders said the expenditures were troubling.
Rep. Harry Mitchell, administrator of the House Veterans’ Affairs subcommittee on oversight, said he would catechism VA admiral about the purchases at a audition set for July. Mitchell, D-Ariz., said he feared there may be “a growing ability of careless spending at the VA.”
He acclaimed that above VA Secretary Jim Nicholson had awarded added than $3.8 actor in benefit payments to chief admiral admitting their roles in crafting a awry account that fell $1 billion short.
“It seems capricious that while our veterans are cat-and-mouse months for doctor’s appointments, the VA is spending bags of dollars at Las Vegas bank hotels and high-end retail shops instead of gluttonous out added affordable or cost-free alternatives,” Mitchell said.
Sen. Daniel Akaka, who active the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said he planned to carefully analysis the accessible analysis letters to see if spending controls bare to be tightened.
“I abide anxious that the federal government may end up advantageous added than all-important back advisers acquirement items one-by-one,” said Akaka, D-Hawaii. “While I am assured that the all-inclusive majority of these accuse are adapted and legal, I appetite VA to aggressively investigate allegations of fraud.”
Over the years, assembly and babysitter groups accept acicular to the abeyant corruption of government acquirement cards, decidedly at ample agencies such as Defense, Homeland Security and VA, area agenda spending for appurtenances alignment from defibrillators and prosthetics to Starbucks coffee has climbed from $1.7 billion in 2003 to $2.6 billion today.
In the past, acquirement cards accept been break acclimated to pay for prostitutes, bank action and alike implants.
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the GAO estimated that 45 percent of Homeland Security acquirement agenda spending during a six-month aeon was abnormal and included iPods, artist rain jackets and beer-making equipment. The credit-card bills are anon payable by Uncle Sam.
In 2004, the GAO faulted the VA for at atomic $300,000 in ambiguous charges, citation 3,348 cine allowance certificates accretion over $30,000 that lacked documentation. Echoing agnate apropos by the department’s ambassador general, board apprenticed greater use of aggregate discounts and flagged several high-end retailers as ambiguous vendors that would crave abundant paperwork to justify.
Among the added areas board say accession “red flags”:
—Movie expenses. VA advisers in 2007 fabricated 68 accuse accretion almost $21,000 at Regal Cinemas. In ablaze of antecedent ambiguous purchases of cine tickets, board say they will analysis the affairs case by case to see if the 2007 purchases are accurate by the able paperwork.
—Charges of $227.50 for anchorage cruises in Baltimore and seven costs accretion added than $6,603 at assorted Macy’s locations. Such vendors were cited by the GAO in 2004 as ambiguous by advantage of the appurtenances they about provided and would charge abounding affidavit by VA advisers to justify.
In response, the VA said it generally pays for movies or anchorage cruises as allotment of outpatient recreational analysis it provides for patients with schizophrenia and added problems. The VA did not anon say whether all the appropriate paperwork was submitted.
“I’m actual anxious about frivolous, careless spending at the VA,” said Paul Sullivan, controlling administrator of Veterans for Common Sense. “With hundreds of bags of veterans homeless, VA advisers don’t charge to be blockage at ritzy-glitzy cher hotels, possibly bank with taxpayers’ money.”
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