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Lawmakers: Fire VA chief who OK'd conferences

Oct. 9, 2012 - 02:50PM   |   Last Updated: Oct. 9, 2012 - 02:50PM  |  
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Two Republican lawmakers are calling for the dismissal of a senior Veterans Affairs Department administrator who approved conferences at which more than $760,000 in VA funds were spent on lavish extras such as a $49,516 parody video and promotional items totaling $112,823.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, and Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., ranking Republican on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, wrote to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki on Oct. 5 requesting the immediate removal of John Gingrich as the department's chief of staff.

In 2009, VA ruled that all conferences attended by 100 employees or more be approved by the chief of staff, a move designed to rein in travel and conference spending. But in December 2010, Gingrich signed off on an $8 million budget for several human resources training conferences. According to the VA inspector general's report, the request should have raised several red flags, as it listed a higher cost per attendee and higher proportional expenses than previous gatherings.

The inspector general said the request should have "prompted [Gingrich] to ask more questions" and criticized the office's lack of oversight of the expenditures.

Burr and Miller agreed, calling Gingrich's approval "perfunctory" and "inexcusable."

"In this instance, the VA chief of staff cavalierly approved an exorbitant conference budget under the guise of a process meant to safeguard against that very occurrence," they wrote in their letter to Shinseki.

At least one senior official has left VA as a result of the fallout over the two training conferences, which made news when a video of an actor portraying Gen. George S. Patton was released, followed by subsequent videos of attendees singing karaoke and listening to motivational speaker Jim Deken, hired for the event.

The two conferences were held at the Marriott World Center Orlando Golf and Spa Resort in 2011.

The official who resigned is John Sepulveda, VA assistant secretary for human resources and administration.">He stepped down Sept. 30, the day before the IG issued its scathing report. Two other employees are on administrative leave.

Miller and Burr called Sepulveda's resignation was "step in the right direction" but said more needed to be done to show that senior leaders are accountable when taxpayer dollars are squandered.

"We are disturbed by the lack of leadership, lack of judgment and wasteful spending outlined by [the IG], particularly at the highest levels of the department," the letter states.

In statement shortly following initial release of the IG report, VA said Shinseki planned to appoint a panel of senior officials to review "evidence of wrongdoing and recommend appropriate administrative action."

A VA spokesman said Tuesday the department has taken action following release of the IG report, citing Sepulveda's resignation and the placement of the two employees on leave.

Shinseki also has "addressed Gingrich's conduct" and is reviewing the cases of other employees involved in the planning and oversight, the spokesman said.

"As we said when this report was issued, any misuse of taxpayer dollars is unacceptable and that is why Secretary Shinseki took immediate action consistent with the recommendations in the OIG report to implement policies that strengthen oversight, improve accountability, and safeguard taxpayer dollars," he said.

Other lawmakers have pressed Shinseki for leadership changes at VA. After the IG report was published, Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., ranking Democrat on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, said Shinseki needed to "take bold and decisive steps to change the management culture" at VA.

Filner described VA management as one that "does not question the expenditure of funds … does not follow VA policy or procedure and is not held responsible for these failures."

"This … has gone on too long, from administration to administration and it simply must stop," Filner said in an Oct. 2 statement.

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