Lawmakers: Fire VA Chief of Staff Over Conferences

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The chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee and ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee have called for the removal of the Department of Veterans Affairs chief of staff for leadership failures related to reckless spending on VA training programs.

One senior VA official has already resigned over the 2011 training programs held at a Florida resort that involved VA employees accepting gifts from current and would-be contractors. John Sepulveda, the VA's assistant secretary for human resources, resigned at the end of September, the day before the VA's Inspector General released the results of its investigation.

The IG recommended in its report that administrative action be taken against Chief of Staff John R. Gingrich. Sen. Richard Burr, R-NC, and Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., have since demanded he be fired.

"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," the Republican lawmakers wrote.

VA officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Gingrich signed off on an $8 million budget for human resources conferences, even though it was his job to ensure "prudent use and control of [the VA's] limited resources," the lawmakers said in their letter to Shinseki.

"That document is barely a permission slip … To say he treated his responsibility casually is an understatement," they wrote. "We can only conclude that Mr. Gingrich's role was merely to provide the appearance of oversight, nothing more."

Accountability begins at the top, the lawmakers told Shinseki, and in this instance Gingrich "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. Mr. Gingrich's removal … is the unequivocal way to deliver that message of accountability."

The conferences at the Marriott World Center in Orlando in July and August 2011 cost about $6.1 million, the IG concluded. During the two events, employees also accepted gifts that included alcohol, gift baskets, tickets to see the Rockettes, spa treatments, stretch limo transportation and even helicopter rides, the IG said.

Miller slammed the VA for the conference costs in a statement Oct. 1, calling the agency's bookkeeping "funny money accounting." He said the IG's report revealed that the agency took no action to stem the excessive spending on conferences, though Congress had regularly warned it to rein in costs.

The VA, in its own statement on the IG report, said it agreed with the findings and said they represented "serious lapses in oversight, judgment, and stewardship."

The VA said Shinseki would appoint senior officials to review evidence of wrongdoing and to recommend appropriate administrative action. The agency said two employees already have been placed on administrative leave pending review, but did not identify them.

In its report, the IG identified three officials who, they concluded, improperly accepted gifts from contractors. The three are Arthur McMahan, deputy dean of the V.A. Learning University, which supports the agency's training programs and policies; Jolisa Dudley, executive assistant to the Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Human Resources Management; and Thomas Barritt, special assistant to the Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Human Resources Management.

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