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Lawmakers: VA must police conference scandal

Oct. 3, 2012 - 09:59AM   |   Last Updated: Oct. 3, 2012 - 09:59AM  |  
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House Veterans' Affairs Committee leaders are expressing concern that the Veterans Affairs Department employees involved in more than $760,000 in wasteful conference spending might evade disciplinary action.

One VA official, the assistant secretary for human resources, resigned the day before the VA inspector general issued a damning report accusing him of lying to investigators and abdicating his responsibilities to oversee and control expenses for two weeklong training conferences at a Florida resort last year.

John Sepulveda, the official who resigned, will not face criminal prosecution after the Justice Department declined to pursue charges. But at least 11 other VA employees improperly accepted gifts from hotels and vendors trying to get the government's business, including one who openly solicited the gift of upgraded rooms from the Marriott World Center Orlando Golf and Spa Resort, where the two conferences were held, according to the IG report.

Many VA executives also are faulted by the IG for not paying attention to the growing costs.

The report recommended punitive action against seven VA executives, including Sepulveda, plus action against employees who improperly accepted gifts. There is some overlap between the two categories, as three of the executives criticized for failing to provide proper oversight are also listed as having accepted improper gifts.

VA Chief of Staff John Gingrich, who approved spending of up to $8 million on human resources conferences, was admonished for his role. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki "has informed Chief of Staff Gingrich that the review of the Orlando conferences was inadequate and that more questions should have been asked prior to authorization," according to a VA statement.

As for the other VA employees recommended by the IG for administrative action, the statement says Shinseki "will appoint senior officials to review evidence of wrongdoing and to recommend appropriate administrative action." Two employees have been placed on administrative leave, but the others continue to work.

Reviews will be conducted by officials outside the human resources community, VA officials said.

"Due to Privacy Act considerations, VA is not able to release more detail. Employees who have misused taxpayer dollars or violated VA standards of conduct will be held accountable," according to the statement.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the veterans' committee chairman, isn't satisfied. In an Oct. 1 letter to VA, Miller expressed concern "that VA will not fully hold accountable those employees cited in the report for unlawful and inappropriate actions." Miller says he wants to know specific actions being taken.

The senior Democrat on the panel, Rep. Bob Filner of California, also wants more details. "This VA culture has gone on too long, from administration to administration, and it simply must stop," Filner said in an Oct. 2 statement.

Filner said VA needs "decisive steps to change, once and for all, the management culture … a culture that does not question the expenditure of funds and cannot account for them once they are spent."

The IG report found repeated instances of VA workers lacking proper authority to spend government money but doing so anyway, which resulted in overspending on such items as computer rentals, extra food and beverages served during conference breaks and promotional items to be given to attendees.

In some cases, these extra charges were put on government purchase cards, with employees with limited contracting authority splitting large payments into smaller increments in violation of government rules to avoid purchase limits.

Some of the VA workers now accused of overspending received bonuses, either cash or extra time off, for their work, according to the IG report.

One of those who received a $4,000 cash bonus was the staff member who worked on a controversial $49,000 expense involving an actor who portrayed Gen. George Patton and gave a pep talk to employees.

The IG report says the two videos and personal appearances by actor and motivational speaker Jim Deken, who received about $3,200 for his work, are an example of wasteful and excessive spending because they added little to the purpose of the conference, held to train VA human resources personnel.

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