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Five officials left VA in wake of conference fallout

Oct. 29, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments
Former VA chief human capital officer John Sepulveda and four other VA officials involved in two costly conferences have left the agency.
Former VA chief human capital officer John Sepulveda and four other VA officials involved in two costly conferences have left the agency. (Veterans Affairs)

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Five Veterans Affairs Department officials involved in two costly 2011 conferences have resigned or retired since the VA inspector general faulted their roles in planning, managing and overseeing the training events in Orlando, Fla., according to a newly released congressional report.

The highest ranking, former VA chief human capital officer John Sepulveda, resigned Sept. 30, 2012, one day before the public release of the IG review alleging that he lied about his involvement in the production of a $50,000 parody video of the movie “Patton” shown at the conferences. While the departure of Sepulveda — who in a sworn affidavit denied purposefully misleading investigators — was widely reported at the time, the other four officials have since stepped down with little or no fanfare.

On Wednesday, Sepulveda repeatedly assserted his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the department’s conference spending.

In a statement, his lawyer, Preston Burton. said he knew of no current investigation involving Sepulveda, but objected that the committee report failed to mention the affidavit, despite “parroting the IG’s rejected contentions.” The committee’s partisan agenda left Sepulveda little choice but to assert his constitutional right, Burton said.

John Gingrich, chief of staff to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, retired in March, according to the House committee’s report released in advance of the hearing. Tonya Deanes, previously deputy assistant secretary of human resources management, resigned earlier this year after being assigned to other duties. Also resigning were Alice Muellerweiss, dean of the VA Learning University (VALU) and Timothy Pleso, a VALU event manager who was one of the lead conference planners, the House report said.

The inspector general had recommended administrative action against Gingrich, Muellerweiss and Deanes, while referring Pleso’s case to the Justice Department for prosecution for allegedly seeking and accepting improper gifts. Justice declined to take action, according to the House report.

Besides Sepulveda, witnesses for Wednesday’s hearing include Gina Farrisee, VA’s current chief human capital officer; Edward Murray, the department’s deputy assistant finance secretary; and two top staffers from the IG’s office.

In last year’s review, the inspector general had estimated the conferences’ combined pricetag at $6.1 million, with about $762,000 in unauthorized, unneeded or wasteful expenses. While VA officials have touted their efforts to strengthen oversight, the House committee’s report contains details that could further embarrass the department. One conference organizer unsuccessfully sought to have the Washington Redskins cheerleaders make an appearance, while another wrote in an email that “obviously the money is not an issue,” according to the report.

Following the inspector general’s review, the VA spent almost $400,000 for two contractors to review its training and conference policies and procedures. More than a year after the review’s release, however, 26 of the IG’s 49 recommendations for improvement remain open, the report said.

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