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Topics: Veterans Affairs

Rules fail to restrain big-spending VA officials

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Click on the image to launch The Washington Examiner's interactive presentation showing the relationships between the key characters in our "Drama at the VA" series. News,Watchdog,Mark Flatten,Veterans Affairs

Third in a three-part series

Big-spending U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs officials got star treatment when they planned a $6.1 million pair of controversial human resources training conferences in Orlando last year.

Manicures. Pedicures. Limousine and helicopter rides. Free rooms and show tickets. Expensive hors d'oeuvres. Nothing was too good for employees of VA's Office of Human Resources and Administration.

Such a cavalier attitude toward taxpayers and the rules is nothing new in the VA's central personnel department. A recent series of Inspector General's reports exposed friends helping friends get jobs, government credit card abuses, failures to do background checks on prospective employees, and lying under oath.

DRAMA AT THE VA
Third of a three-part series
Part 1: Soap starlet at the center of taxpayer-financed VA drama
Part 2: Cronyism, deceit haunt VA office that planned costly conferences
Got tips or other information about problems at the VA? Contact Mark Flatten at mflatten@washingtonexaminer.com or 202-459-4976.

Several cases were referred to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution, but so far none has been charged.

John Sepulveda, former assistant secretary for human resources, became the only official to lose his job because of the Orlando conferences when he resigned the day before the latest IG report was released last month.

Sepulveda's predecessor, Willie Hensley, was found to have abused his position to get two female friends high-paying jobs in the VA human resources office. The IG referred cases against both men to prosecutors but neither was charged.

 

VANCE

Allegations of impropriety go deeper. Among those accused of wrongdoing is Reginald Vance, director of learning infrastructure at the VA Learning University (VALU), one of two organizations within the personnel department that planned the Orlando conferences.

When VA hired Vance in February 2009, he said nothing about the fact he was about to be fired when he left his previous job at the Department of Interior, according to June 2012 VA IG report. (See the reports by the VA and Interior Department Inspectors General in the embedded document viewer below this story.)

Interior investigators recommended prosecution after they said Vance misused his government-issued travel card. Vance was not charged, and he managed to reach a settlement with his Interior bosses that allowed him to resign.

The VA IG investigation also found Vance billed the agency for improper travel expenses such as valet parking, unneeded car rentals and upgrades, and an extra night at a golf resort.

In addition, Vance violated personnel rules by trying to get an old fraternity friend a job at a private company that did business with VALU.

VA officials failed to conduct a required background check on Vance, a common failing within the human resources office, according to the IG.

Vance's case wasn't unique as the VA IG said four other top officials at VA - all hired in a four-month period - had been fired or were about to be fired from other federal agencies.

VA officials refused to comment or provide additional documents requested by The Washington Examiner.

The VA IG's Orlando conferences report doesn't mention Vance by name, but the names of all but the most senior officials faulted for misspending were redacted.

Vance's immediate supervisors at VALU, Alice Muellerweiss and Arthur McMahan, are both identified and blamed for failing to control costs.

Vance could not be reached for comment.

Cronyism was also exposed by the June 2010 IG investigation of Rayshad Holmes, who violated personnel rules by giving preferential treatment to a close friend as director of the VA's Office of Human Resource Development.

Vance later helped the individual get a promotion to a different VA office. In both cases, the person worked directly for Vance.

James O'Neill, assistant VA inspector general for investigations, said when the report on the Orlando conferences was released that he found no evidence of a culture of abuse within the VA's human resources office.

Asked more recently whether that assessment changed in light of the other investigations, the IG's office issued an even less definitive statement.

"Our investigation was limited to the two Orlando HR conferences," the statement reads. "We drew no conclusions whether the culture within the VA Human Resources and Administration organization contributed to the significant failures outlined in our report."

Got tips about problems inside the VA? Contact reporter Mark Flatten at mflatten@washingtonexaminer.com or 202-459-4976.

More in this series

Part 1: Soap starlet at the center of taxpayer-financed VA drama

Part 2: Cronyism, deceit haunt VA office that planned costly conferences

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