By Sandra Basu
WASHINGTON — In the wake of an IG investigation that confirmed wasteful spending at two VA human resources conferences last year, Republican leaders are calling for the resignation of VA Chief of Staff John Gingrich.
“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. A message must be sent to all VA employees that perfunctory execution of so great a responsibility is inexcusable at any time and at every level. Mr. Gingrich’s removal as chief of staff is the unequivocal way to deliver that message of accountability,” Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said in a letter addressed to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
VA’s response suggested, however, that Gingrich would keep his job. The VA answered the lawmakers in a written statement that “Mr. Gingrich’s conduct has been addressed by the Secretary.”
The lawmakers’ request was only the latest in a saga that has revolved around spending on two multimillion dollar VA human resources conferences held in Orlando, FL, last year. Lawmakers were outraged this summer by frivolous spending that included items such as two short videos starring an actor impersonating the opening scenes from Patton, costing VA about $50,000.
The VA Office of the Inspector General (IG) confirmed wasteful spending in its September report and found that the VA had spent $6.1 million on the two conferences, pointing out that they “could not gain reasonable assurance that this figure represents a complete accounting for these conferences.”
The day before the VA IG released results of its investigation, John Sepulveda, VA’s assistant secretary for human resources and administration, stepped down from his position. He had been called out in the report by VA IG investigators who concluded that he had “abdicated his responsibilities when he failed to provide proper guidance and oversight to his senior executives in the operations of his organization.”
The report also said that, while Sepulveda had denied having any involvement with the Gen. George S. Patton parody video, investigators had discovered that to be untrue.
“It is a fair inference that his efforts to distance himself from responsibility extended to making false statements under oath as to his knowledge of, and involvement in, the preparation of the Patton parody video, which has received considerable scrutiny and criticism since appearing in the press,” the report stated.
As for Gingrich, the IG report stated that, prior to approving the proposal to hold the conferences, he “did not make sufficient inquiries concerning the details of the intended expenditures for the conferences.”
According to VA, its weeklong conferences in Orlando provided “professional development and instruction for almost half of VA’s HR workforce.”
“These nearly 2,000 HR professionals received training to better recruit, train and retain medical professionals, benefits processors, cemetery employees and other VA staff who provide vital care and services veterans have earned and deserve,” according to the VA.
VA investigators agreed that VA held the conferences “to fulfill valid training needs” but also said, “VA’s processes and the oversight were too weak, ineffective and in some instances nonexistent.”
“Thus, many conference costs were not sufficiently documented, which made them difficult to clearly justify, or identify whether they were accurate, appropriate, necessary or even reasonably priced. In fact, we questioned about $762,000 as unauthorized, unnecessary and/or wasteful expenses,” they wrote.
Furthermore, the investigators “found that 11 VA employees, tasked with conference-management responsibilities, improperly accepted gifts from contractors seeking to do business or already doing business with VA.” Included among the nearly $6,000 worth of prohibited gifts were $890 in massages and pedicure/manicures, $2,300 in meals and $800 in food and gift baskets.
The findings of the report elicited a strong response from members of Congress.
“I am deeply dismayed by what the Office of Inspector General has found regarding these conferences. The blatant waste of taxpayer dollars and government employees improperly accepting gifts cannot, and will not, be tolerated,” Chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Sen. Patty Murray, (D-WA), said in a written statement.
In response to the findings, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said they were “troubling.”
“The actions cited in the report represent lapses in oversight, judgment and stewardship,” he said in comments attached to the report. “The department is committed to effectively addressing the issues outlined in the IG report. This will include appropriate personnel measures. It will also include the enforcement of current guidelines and, as needed, the enactment of new rules and procedures to improve accountability and help ensure that such incidents do not occur again.”
Shinseki said he had spoken with Sepulveda concerning the IG’s findings and had accepted his resignation. The report also said that Shinseki “informed Mr. Gingrich that the policies and procedures that were in place to review and monitor the expenses of the conferences were inadequate and that he should have asked more questions when the proposal was submitted for authorization.”
A facility-specific survey found that 138 of 140 VA facilities reported shortages of medical officers, with psychiatry and primary care positions being the most frequently listed.
When Terrence O’Neil, MD, retired as chief of nephrology at the James H. Quillen VAMC in Johnson City in December 2016, he left in his wake decades of work treating kidney disease—nearly 35 years in the Air Force and DoD, plus 11 more at VA.