Official resigns after report finds VA spent $6.1M on lavish conferences

The head of Human Resources for the Veterans Affairs Department resigned after an inspector general’s (IG) report found that the agency spent $6.1 million on two weeklong conferences.

The 142-page IG report investigated about $762,000 in “unauthorized, unnecessary, and/or wasteful expenses” during two conferences held in Orlando, Fla., that included $49,516 to produce a parody video of the late-Gen. George S. Patton.

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Assistant Secretary for Human Resources and Administration John Sepúlveda stepped down on Sunday following the release of the report, which determined that he “abdicated his responsibilities” by not properly overseeing the conferences.

“Misuse of taxpayer dollars is completely unacceptable,” said the VA in a statement. “The actions cited in the report represent serious lapses in oversight, judgment, and stewardship.”

The conferences were held in 2011 for about 1,800 VA employees “to fulfill valid training needs,” according to the report. But the VA’s top leadership “failed to provide proper oversight,” which allowed lower-level senior officials to spend $280,698 on an excessive contract with a Marriott Hotel for audio-visual services, catering, food and drinks.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki is planning to appoint senior agency officials “to review evidence of wrongdoing and to recommend appropriate administrative action,” according to the VA’s statement.

Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), the chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, was outraged at the IG’s findings and called on the VA to conduct a top-to-bottom review of how much money it spends on conferences.

“This sort of funny money accounting must stop, and will no longer be tolerated, especially in today’s tight fiscal climate,” Miller said in a statement. “Without a doubt, this appears to be a systemic problem at VA, and using the figures based in today’s report, it can be reasonably concluded that 10-15 percent of VA’s conference spending is wasteful, amounting to $10-15 million a year, at the least.

“I am calling on VA to review these findings, and take appropriate action, especially at the senior management level.”

The report also found that 11 VA officials who were in charge of managing the conference accepted improper gifts from contractors that were either already doing business with the VA or sought to do business with the department.

“Employees who have misused taxpayer dollars or violated VA standards of conduct will be held accountable,” the VA stated. Citing the Privacy Act, the agency said it was not able to release more specifics.

Five months ago, Congress blasted the General Services Administration for holding a lavish $823,000 conference in Las Vegas in 2010.