Defense & National Security

Calls for more reform at VA amid spending scandal

Calls for more reform at VA amid spending scandal

A top human resources official is out at the Veterans Affairs Department with the release of a new report showing frivolous spending for employee conferences on the taxpayer’s dime. But some would like to see more heads roll following the revelations.

Assistant Secretary for Human Resources and Administration John Sepúlveda tendered his resignation just before the Sept. 30 release of a 142-page inspector general’s (OIG) report that outlines almost $800,000 in wasteful and unnecessary spending at department employee conferences that went way over budget.

Taxpayers put up nearly $50,000 for two conference videos featuring an actor recreating a famous scene from Patton; more than $280,000 above authorized costs for stays at the opulent World Center Marriott in Orlando; and nearly $98,000 for “unnecessary promotional items,” such as pens and water bottles. The report also found that VA employees accepted unauthorized gifts from Marriott, including helicopter rides and tickets to the Rockettes.

“It is blatantly clear that VA does not know how much it spends on conferences. That has been apparent from contradictory information provided to the committee in testimony and documents,” House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said in a statement. “But to put this specific conference into context, the OIG found that $762,197 of the overall costs were wasteful. As a comparison, the entire GSA (Government Services Administration) conference held last year in Las Vegas totaled $823,000.”

The reasons for the resignation of Sepulveda, an Obama appointee, are made abundantly clear in the report, which forms a broad-edged indictment of his leadership, citing his lack of control over his own department and challenging him on a transparent lie—which he later owned up to—that he had never seen the “Patton” videos.

At least seven other high-ranking VA employees, including VA Chief of Staff John Gingrich, were also implicated in the scandal. Their fate is unclear.

“I think what we need to do is dig into the inspector general’s report and try to identify two things: all the people that were involved in making these flawed decisions to spend money on these conferences, and then try to see if there is a way to develop a repair,” said House Veterans Affairs Committee member Bill Flores (R-Texas). “What’s harder is to try to find what’s wrong with the culture of the VA and getting it fixed. I truly wish we could make it a service-oriented organization.”

Miller too said he wanted more accountability and perhaps more turn-over.

In a written response to Human Events, he said there needed to be a full accounting of who was responsible for what in the conference boondoggle.

“When I look at these findings, and see the spending spree VA employees went on, I ask, and have been asking VA, who is responsible? Who is in charge? We hear the same excuse over and over again from VA, that they have taken action, but the Committee rarely, if ever, receives any documentation regarding what actions have specifically been taken to ensure this type of abuse doesn’t occur in the future.”

In light of a backlog that has kept hundreds of thousands of veterans waiting up to a year to get their disability claims approved at the VA, some think accounting for this kind of careless waste should go straight to the top. Jim Strickland, manager of VAWatchdog.org, noted that VA Secretary Eric Shinseki gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention touting the accomplishments of the department under the current administration, with no mention of the scandal or the backlog.

“If Obama wanted the veteran vote, why would he let things like this happen?” Strickland said. “How does a veteran go out and vote for a president who has appointed a secretary who would let this happen?”

Miller said he has made a second request to Shinseki for a full accounting of all VA conference spending.

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