In yet one more scandal (tired of hearing that yet?), news broke today that another massive misuse and waste of taxpayer money has been uncovered. This time, the thefts were found at two Veterans Affairs events in Orlando, Florida. Wondering how much this one’s going to cost you, me and your Aunt Hilda? So far, the tally comes in at $6 million – and climbing. The VA Office of Inspector General released its 150 page report today and so far, at least one upper government official has dropped his head in shame, resigned his position and most likely went home, turned his phone off and closed his blinds. Things are about to get uncomfortable for John Sepulveda, who, up until today, was an assistant secretary for the VA’s top Human Resources boss.
The report was not kind, either. In it, Sepulveda is singled out and accused by the Inspector General’s office of having “abdicated his responsibilities”. He was the one who not only scheduled the trips, flights and hotel reservations, but the agency said there were numerous examples of what it referred to as “excessive costs and unnecessary and unsupported expenditures”. The two named conferences happened in July and August of 2011, and both were held in Orlando, which in itself is a red flag.
You may recall it’s been less than two years since the massive scandal surrounding a 2010 Las Vegas conference forced another government official, General Services Administration chief Martha Johnson, to resign in shame. That conference cost taxpayers more than $800,000 and included day spas, golf outings, evening entertainment and even gambling funds.
So what else has Sepulveda been accused of?
- Lying to investigators and co-workers
- Breaking a “series” of federal laws, including accepting gifts from hotels, which is both illegal and unethical
- Using taxpayer monies in karaoke bars, expensive entertainment events and expensive restaurants. A video parody is said to have been made of the movie Patton, in which a paid actor and resulted in another $50,000 loss
- Approving purchases to make other videos with so far total about $17,000
- $762,000 in “unauthorized, unnecessary, and/or wasteful expenses”, which include additional payments to government employees for their “management efforts” at these conferences
Transparency and Accountability
Politicians are now demanding more transparency and accountability. One Florida Republican Representative, Jeff Miller, says this is all due to a lack of leadership and told the media on Monday, “It is blatantly clear that VA does not know how much it spends on conferences,” he said.
This sort of funny money accounting must stop, and will no longer be tolerated, especially in today’s tight fiscal climate.
Within moments of this story breaking, the VA released another presser and said it had already begun making changes as a result of the investigation and subsequent report.
While the IG report makes clear that ‘VA held these conferences to fulfill valid training needs’ and ‘offered legitimate, substantive training courses at the conferences,’ this does not excuse the misconduct of even a few individuals,
the department said in its press release. It then went on to reiterate the agency’s belief that taxpayer monies that are misused is “completely unacceptable” and that the report uncovers and lays bare “serious lapses in oversight, judgment, and stewardship.”
The question now, is whether there will be any further repercussions for other employees and it appears at least two have already been placed on administrative leave. It’s not known if they are still collecting their salaries, however. The only thing the VA said on Monday was that any employees found guilty of misusing tax dollars or otherwise violated the policies of the VA would be held accountable. The review continues and the fate of those two employees and others who come into the crosshairs will be reserved until the review has been completed.
What’s interesting is the report is specific about eleven more employees who are believed to have been in charge of overseeing the two conferences. They too have been accused of accepting gifts from hotels and other vendors or contractors. The report says those gifts ranged from meals to massages to hotel rooms and even helicopter rides. One government employee even asked a hotel chain to cover the rooms for his family.
As we mentioned, the investigation continues; however, late Monday evening as our writers were preparing these columns, news broke that another lawmaker may be upping the ante. It’s not clear the context being used, though we’ll follow this story through to its ultimate conclusion.
So what do you think should happen if these employees are found to have been working outside the scope of government compliance? Should they be terminated? Should other department heads be strongly encouraged to resign and if not, discharged by the VA? Share your thoughts with us.