Watchdog: Hill leaders demand ouster of VA's chief of staff

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News,Watchdog,Mark Flatten,Veterans Affairs

Top Congressional Republicans demanded the ouster of the highest-ranking Veterans Affairs official implicated in the scandal over runaway conference spending.

Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida and Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina want "immediate removal" of John R. Gingrich, chief of staff at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The two Republicans are the chair and ranking member, respectively, of the House and Senate veterans affairs committees.

You can't continually blame your subordinates for your lack of leadership ability.-- U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R.-Fla.


Gingrich provided nothing more than "the appearance of oversight" in approving two training conferences in Orlando last year, the two congressmen said in a letter dated Friday but released this morning(See the letter below this story.) The conferences cost taxpayers at least $6.1 million.

Gingrich is the third-ranking official at the VA and oversees the department's day-to-day operations.

The resignation demand follows last week's report by the VA Inspector General pointing to $762,000 in wasteful spending, including $49,000 for production of a video parody of the movie Patton and more than $280,000 for food and refreshments.

GINGRICH

Gingrich failed to review expenses for conferences as he was required to do to prevent wasteful spending, Miller and Burr said in their letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who was not directly faulted in the IG report.

"To say he treated his responsibility casually is an understatement," they said. "We can only conclude that Mr. Gingrich's role was merely to provide the appearance of oversight, nothing more."

The letter calls for the immediate removal of Gingrich to demonstrate lax oversight of taxpayer dollars will not be tolerated. It does not say whether he should be fired or allowed to resign.

Miller told The Washington Examiner in an interview Friday that he was weighing whether Shinseki ultimately bears the blame for the runaway costs and should resign.

"You can't continually blame your subordinates for your lack of leadership ability," Miller said Friday when asked whether Shinseki is to blame. He stopped short of saying Shinseki should be replaced, but said he would review the facts before making his decision.

Miller could not be reached today.

A retired Army colonel who has been with the VA since the early days of the Obama administration, Gingrich is listed as the third highest-ranking officer on the VA organizational chart and head of its day-to-day operations, though it's unclear whether he reports directly to Shinseki or through Scott Gould, the deputy secretary.

The IG investigation found the two training conferences were plagued by wasteful spending, and that there was little effort to control the costs. Gingrich told IG investigators that he authorized the conferences and "took full responsibility" for them. But he also laid blame on others.

"It's my signature upon that page," Gingrich told investigators about his authorization of the conferences and their cost. "And I take the full responsibility. And I should have asked, probably, harder questions than I did. But I also think there is a bunch of senior executives ... that have responsibilities for the execution."

 

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki is a former U.S. Army chief of staff.

John Sepulveda, the agency's assistant secretary for human resources and administration, resigned in the wake of the IG's investigation. Sepulveda ranked immediately below Gingrich.

Two others have been placed on leave pending further investigation. Several other employees involved in the conferences are facing possible discipline.

The case of one VA worker who solicited a free hotel room has been referred to the Justice Department of possible prosecution.

VA officials did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

A statement issued last week by the agency in response to the IG investigation said Shinseki "informed" Gingrich that his oversight of the Orlando conferences "was inadequate and that more questions should have been asked prior to authorization."

Have tips or other information about problems in the VA or other federal agencies? Contact Mark Flatten at mflatten@washingtonexaminer.com or 202-459-4929.

Data Editor Jennifer Peebles contributed to this story. She can be reached at jpeebles@washingtonexaminer.com.

Follow all the work of the Washington Examiner's Watchdog team -- now on Facebook, Google Plus and Twitter (@WshExWatchdog).

Shinseki Letter From Miller and Burr - Gingrich
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