Republican lawmakers call for ouster of VA official who approved conferences

Tuesday - 10/9/2012, 6:35pm EDT

Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee

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The top Republicans on the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees have called for the removal of the Veterans Affairs Department chief of staff, following an internal report that blamed poor leadership for questionable conference spending.

VA Chief of Staff John Gingrich signed off on the two training conferences held in Orlando, Fla, last summer, which cost $6.1 million, according to the Sept. 30 inspector general report.As much as $762,000 of the spending was wasteful or questionable, the IG found, including more than $49,000 for a video parody of the 1970 film Patton and $112,823 for promotional items.

"Accountability begins at the top," wrote Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), the chairman of the House committee, and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the ranking member of the Senate committee, in a letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. "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 any level."

'Barely a permission slip'

John Gingrich, VA chief of staff

The IG report found Gingrich approved an initial $8 million conference budget — about $2,600 per attendee — despite receiving a memo with only "minimal detail" about the proposed conference.

"That document is barely a permission slip, let alone a 'strong business case,'" Miller and Burr wrote. "To say he treated his responsibility casually is an understatement."

Gingrich told the IG's office that he took "full responsibility" for the conferences, according to the report.

"I signed the thing authorizing the conferences. So, I should have made sure the conferences were executed better," Gingrich told investigators. "Now, I think people should have done more prudent work. But, it's my signature upon that page. And, I take the full responsibility. And, I should have asked, probably, harder questions than I did."

Appropriate administrative action

The IG report commended the chief of staff "for his forthrightness and willingness to take responsibility," but said he should have done more to oversee costs. The IG recommended Shinseki consult with HR officials and legal counsel to take "appropriate administrative action" against Gingrich.

However, in his response to the report, Shinseki did not indicate what action he planned to take against his chief of staff, if any.

In their letter, Miller and Burr wrote: "With the utmost respect for Mr. Gingrich's service to the nation in uniform and in public service, we believe the appropriate administrative action is his immediate removal as VA chief of staff."

Gingrich was not the only official singled out in the IG report for failing to provide proper oversight of conference spending.

The report criticized Assistant Secretary for Human Resources and Administration John Sepulveda for taking a "hand-off approach" and said he "abdicated his responsibilities" by failing to provide guidance to senior executives. He resigned the day before the IG's office published the report.

On Tuesday, VA issued a statement addressing Miller and Burr's letter and the OIG report.

"Any misuse of taxpayer dollars is unacceptable and that is why Secretary Shinseki took immediate action consistent with the recommendations in the OIG report to implement policies that strengthen oversight, improve accountability, and safeguard taxpayer dollars," the statement said. "Assistant Secretary Sepulveda has resigned, Mr. Gingrich's conduct has been addressed by the Secretary, two career employees have been placed on leave pending review of their conduct, and a further review of other career employees' actions cited in the OIG report is underway."

The statement went on to say VA has put in place a plan to "revise and strengthen polices and controls on the planning and execution of training conferences as recommended in the final OIG report."

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