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Senator seeks answers on employee bonuses amid VA conference scandal

Oct. 10, 2012 - 12:26PM   |  
By STEPHEN LOSEY   |   Comments
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said in a letter she wants to know why VA gave bonuses to five employees for keeping senior leaders aware of conference issues, even though those leaders were largely uninvolved in the conference's financial and planning decisions. 
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Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said in a letter she wants to know why VA gave bonuses to five employees for keeping senior leaders aware of conference issues, even though those leaders were largely uninvolved in the conference's financial and planning decisions. . (Blair Tomlinson / Staff)

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, on Tuesday demanded that VA Secretary Eric Shinseki provide more details on VA employees who received bonuses for working on two scandalous conferences that took place in the summer of 2011 in Orlando, Fla.

Collins said in a letter she wants to know why VA gave bonuses to five employees for keeping senior leaders aware of conference issues, even though those leaders were largely uninvolved in the conference’s financial and planning decisions.

VA’s inspector general on Oct. 1 released a report that concluded the agency spent $6.1 million on the conferences and wasted $762,000 on video production, food and beverages, promotional items, audio-visual services, and awards given to employees who mismanaged the conferences. The scandal brought down the VA’s chief human capital officer John Sepulveda, who resigned Sept. 30.

The IG report slammed VA’s leadership for taking a hands-off approach to managing the conference, and for its shoddy accounting and contracting practices.

Collins said she wants to know what those employees did to keep top leaders informed, and what VA is doing to revoke those bonuses, which she said were improper.

Collins also wants to know why VA awarded bonuses to an employee who worked on a $50,000 video parodying the movie “Patton” and another who bought a karaoke machine with his own money to use at the conference. Both those expenses were deemed improper by the IG.

Collins said VA should have uncovered problems with the conferences after the Office of Management and Budget in September 2011 ordered all agencies to review their conference spending. She also asked for VA’s report to OMB.

“These findings [in the IG report] are inexcusable, given the heroic mission the VA has to serve our nation’s veterans, but they are especially disappointing because they should have been preventable,” Collins said.

Collins gave VA an Oct. 31 deadline to respond.

In addition, two other Republican lawmakers on Friday called for the Veterans Affairs Department to fire its chief of staff for approving the two training conferences.

VA Chief of Staff John Gingrich abdicated his responsibilities by “cavalierly” approving a maximum $8 million budget for the human resources conferences last summer, said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., in an Oct. 5 letter to Shinseki.

“To say [Gingrich] treated his responsibility casually is an understatement,” said the lawmakers. “No one can conclude that the one-page document Mr. Gingrich signed to approve an $8 million budget … was an exercise of ensuring ‘prudent use and control’ of taxpayer resources. That document is barely a permission slip, let alone a ‘strong business case.’ ”

Miller is chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and Burr is the ranking Republican on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. The House committee posted the letter online Tuesday.

VA said last week that Shinseki told Gingrich that his review of the conferences was inadequate and that he should have asked more questions before he authorized them.

In a statement Tuesday, VA said, “Mr. Gingrich’s conduct has been addressed by the secretary.”

Shinseki “took immediate action consistent with the recommendations of the [IG] report to implement policies that strengthen oversight, improve accountability, and safeguard taxpayer dollars,” VA said.

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