Probe slams VA over $6M conference tab including parody video, official resigns

An Obama administration appointee has resigned in connection with another bombshell report detailing the waste of taxpayer money at feel-good conferences — this time, at a pair of Veterans Affairs summits in Orlando that cost more than $6 million.


John Sepulveda, who as assistant secretary for human resources and administration was the agency’s top HR official, resigned just as the VA Office of Inspector General released its 150-page report on the conferences, held on his watch in July and August 2011.


The report said he “abdicated his responsibilities” in overseeing the conferences, leading to “numerous examples of excessive costs, and unnecessary and unsupported expenditures.”


The resignation follows that of General Services Administration chief Martha Johnson, who stepped down following a report on a 2010 Vegas conference for GSA that cost taxpayers more than $800,000.


The Veterans Affairs conferences were far costlier, with the planning described as “dysfunctional” by the IG report.


And the IG report included allegations that Sepulveda made a false statement to investigators, and that other VA employees broke federal law and conduct policies by accepting improper gifts from hotels during the selection process.


The conferences for the department’s human resources employees included a litany of expenses covering everything from whimsical videos to karaoke to hors d’oeuvres, including artisan cheese displays.


One of those expenses, a video parody of the movie “Patton” in which an actor pep-talked the audience about HR “mission imperatives” in the style of the original movie’s opening scene, had already drawn lawmakers’ attention earlier this year when the nearly $50,000 expense first surfaced.


The IG report, though, documented another $16,500 video expense for a so-called “Happy Face Video.” This was a daily video recap of the prior day’s conference events, which according to the report was “improperly authorized.”


The report specifically flagged $762,000 in “unauthorized, unnecessary, and/or wasteful expenses” — which included the “Patton” video, as well as $43,000 in awards paid to staffers “for their roles in the management of these conferences.”


The IG’s office tallied $6.1 million in total costs, though acknowledged the full price tag could be even higher.


Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, decried what he called a “lack of leadership” and called for accountability.


“It is blatantly clear that VA does not know how much it spends on conferences,” he said. “This sort of funny money accounting must stop, and will no longer be tolerated, especially in today’s tight fiscal climate.”


The report further alleged that Sepulveda gave a “false statement” in claiming to investigators that he hadn’t seen the Patton video until the first day of the conference.


“However, several individuals testified that Mr. Sepulveda in fact viewed the videos before the conferences took place,” the report said. The IG’s office said the Department of Justice declined to prosecute the alleged false statement.


The VA announced a series of departmental changes in response to the investigation.


“While the IG report makes clear that ‘VA held these conferences to fulfill valid training needs’ and ‘offered legitimate, substantive training courses at the conferences,’ this does not excuse the misconduct of even a few individuals,” the department said. “Misuse of taxpayer dollars is completely unacceptable. The actions cited in the report represent serious lapses in oversight, judgment, and stewardship.”


The VA said other employees will have allegations of wrongdoing reviewed for appropriate administrative action. Two employees, the VA said, were placed on administrative leave pending review.


“Employees who have misused taxpayer dollars or violated VA standards of conduct will be held accountable,” the department said.


The IG report also found 11 department employees in charge of managing the conference “improperly accepted gifts from contractors seeking to do business or already doing business with VA.” These ranged from lodging to meals to helicopter rides to massages.


Further, the report said one unnamed employee tried to get Marriott to give him and his family “additional lodging benefits.”