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Five VA officials left amid conference fallout

Nov. 3, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments

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An investigation by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s Republican staff reveals that five Veterans Affairs Department officials who were recommended for disciplinary action last year over a high-profile conference scandal have all since left the department.

The scandal concerned two training conferences held in Orlando, Fla., in 2011 that cost an estimated $6.1 million. The two events served about 1,800 VA human resource employees. And while they fulfilled valid training needs, there were about $762,000 in unauthorized, unneeded or wasteful expenses, according to an audit last fall by the VA inspector general’s office.

The VA officials who left the department were: John Sepulveda, the department’s former chief human capital officer, who resigned in September 2012, one day before the public release of an IG investigation report on the scandal; John Gingrich, chief of staff to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who retired in March; Tonya Deanes, deputy assistant secretary of human resources management, who resigned earlier this year after being assigned to other duties; Alice Muellerweiss, dean of the VA Learning University (VALU); and Timothy Pleso, a VALU event manager who was one of the lead conference planners.

In a hearing by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last week, Sepulveda was called to testify about his role in planning the conferences, but cited his Fifth Amendment right to decline answering questions. Sepulveda would only say that he was acting on his lawyer’s advice. In a statement, the lawyer, Preston Burton, said he knew of no current investigation involving his client.

Sepulveda’s successor, Gina Farrisee, said at the hearing that stronger oversight steps have been put in place to prevent such incidents again. But she struggled to explain VA’s rationale for paying two contractors almost $400,000 to review conference policies and procedures and why a handbook on the same subject is still unfinished more than a year after it was promised.

“We can do better,” the committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, said.

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