Weatherford Democrat

Viewpoints

October 8, 2012

COLUMN: Veteran's Corner

— Investigators looking into lavish spending for a pair of Veterans Affairs training conferences in 2011 found evidence that department employees improperly accepted gifts, wasted hundreds of thousands on unneeded expenses and exhibited serious management weaknesses in handling taxpayer dollars.

About 1,800 VA employees attended the two professional development conferences held in July and August 2011. Investigators said the conferences appeared to be legitimate training opportunities, but noted that senior leaders accepted little responsibility for financial stewardship in spending more than $6 million for two events. Among the more flagrant expenses were $50,000 for a conference video of the movie “Patton,” $98,000 for promotional items such as tote bags and thumb drives, $37,000 for travel expenses for VA employees and  $43,000 in extra pay for staff running the events. The investigators also found more than $480,000 in excessive spending for hotel catering, hotel audiovisual services and contractor travel.

The investigation report released Monday by the VA Inspector General’s office also says that the department’s top human resources official, John Sepulveda, failed to provide proper guidance and oversight to his senior executives and lied to investigators about details of the conference. Investigators said Sepulveda told them under oath that he had no prior knowledge of some of the expenses, including the costly “Patton” video produced by an outside contractor. Other employees said Sepulveda not only viewed the video but even suggested changes. Sepulveda resigned on Sunday.

VA officials released a statement saying, “misuse of taxpayer dollars is completely unacceptable” and calling the actions cited in the report, “serious lapses in oversight, judgement and stewardship.” Two other employees cited by investigators in the report, were placed on administrative leave pending a review of their involvement. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki announced he will appoint a panel of senior officials to review the case and recommend appropriate action.

The report says VA employees planning the conferences accepted free massages, hotel rooms, limousine rides and helicopter tours, all against well known policies forbidding government employees from receiving gifts.

In a statement, VA Inspector General George Opfer said, “Beyond the individual ethical lapses, which cast all federal employees in a bad light, the management failures resulted in unnecessary costs and unauthorized commitments that diminished these legitimate training events.” Continuing investigations into the conferences were promised by House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla. and Senate Veterans Affairs Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash.

AMVETS is hosting a car, truck and bike cruise Friday, Oct. 12, and a car, truck and bike show Saturday, Oct. 13, at the 33rd annual Crazy Water Festival. For more inforamtion, visit  crazywaterfestival.org.

Reach Jim Vines at jim.helpingveterans@gmail.com.

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