VA Won't Fire Official Over Resort Conferences

The Department of Veterans Affairs is rejecting lawmakers' calls to fire the official who OK'd training conferences at a Florida resort last year at a cost of $6.1 million.

In a statement released late Tuesday, the agency said VA Secretary Eric Shinseki dealt with the authorizing officer, Chief of Staff Robert Gingrich, in a meeting where he told Gingrich he should have "asked more questions" about the conferences.

In its report on the conferences, the VA's Inspector General recommended that Shinseki confer with human resources officials outside the VA's central office, as well as the agency's lawyers, "to determine the appropriate administrative action to take against Mr. Gingrich and ensure that action is taken."

In a joint letter released on Tuesday, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and Sen. Richard Burr, R-NC, said Shinseki should remove Gingrich from the job for his failures in the conference scandal. Miller chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee and Burr is ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

They noted in their letter that the IG specifically recommended that administrative action be taken against Gingrich.

Shinseki's opting not to proceed further with Gingrich is one of the few times the VA secretary departed from the IG's list of 49 recommendations.

The IG said the plans Gingrich signed off on were vague and that he should have questioned them more closely. He acknowledged as much in his interview with the IG, according to the report, though he also indicated there was plenty of blame to go around.

"I signed the thing authorizing the conferences. So, I should have made sure the conferences were executed better," the IG quotes Gingrich as saying. "Now, I think people should have done more prudent work. But it's my signature upon that page. And I take the full responsibility. AndI should have asked, probably, harder questions than I did. … But I also think there is a bunch of senior executives, regardless of whether they are SES [senior executive service level] or above, that have responsibilities for the execution."

The IG also found that VA employees accepted gifts from contractors that included spa treatments, tickets to a show by the Rockettes and helicopter rides.

One senior VA official resigned days before the IG report was released on Sept. 30. Two others were placed on administrative leave pending a review.

A number of other employees cited in the report for oversight and planning failures may still be subject to punishment, as Shinseki concurred with IG recommendations to appoint a panel to review evidence of wrongdoing.

These employees include Alice Muellerweiss, dean of Veterans Affairs Learning University, or VALU; Arthur McMahan, deputy dean of VALU; Tonya Deanes, deputy assistant secretary for the VA's Office of Human Resources Management, or OHRM; Jolisa Dudley, Deanes' executive assistant; and Thomas Barritt, a special assistant to Deanes.

John Sepulveda, assistant secretary for human resources at the VA, resigned the post in late September, shortly before the IG released its report. Sepulveda provided the December 2010 memo outlining plans for conferences in 2011 that Gingrich signed off on.

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