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Watchdog: Second VA official quits after wasteful conferences spotlighted

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News,Watchdog,Mark Flatten

Another top Department of Veterans Affairs official has resigned in the wake of Inspector-General reports criticizing two "Patton parody" employee training conferences, The Washington Examiner has learned.

Alice Muellerweiss, dean of the VA Learning University that hosted the conferences, resigned effective immediately, Rafael Torres, acting assistant secretary for human resources and administration, said in an announcement to his staff Friday afternoon.

The VA confirmed her departure in a statement today issued in response to this newspaper.

Muellerweiss' former boss, John Sepulveda, left VA in September 2012 after a VA Inspector General's probe found hundreds of thousands of dollars were wasted at the training conferences, held in Orlando in July and August of 2011.

Sepulveda quit the day before the IG reported that as much as $762,000 was wasted on the conferences for a parody video of the movie "Patton," trinkets including pedometers and water bottles, and overpriced food and drinks.

The total cost of the conferences was at least $6.1 million, but the IG report said sloppy record-keeping by VA made it impossible to determine a precise cost figure.

The IG report singled out Muellerweiss for allowing subordinates to plan the conferences with little effort to control costs. Muellerweiss and Tonya Deanes, deputy assistant secretary for human resources, were VA's main managers in charge of the conferences.

They reported to Sepulveda, who IG investigators said did not exercise proper oversight and made false statements when questioned about the misspending.

Sepulveda, Muellerweiss and Deanes, all blamed their subordinates, each saying day-to-day details were delegated to their underlings.

"Muellerweiss, by her own admission, knew nothing about her staff's activities involving the planning of the conferences and remained uninvolved," the IG report said. She also demonstrated a "lack of participation and apparent ignorance of what was taking place within her organization."

Muellerweiss did not return repeated phone messages seeking comment left at her home. She has worked at the VA since June 2008.

Deanes was transferred to another supervisory position, Torres said Friday. Additional details were not available. Torres refused to comment.

The VA's lack of transparency and the costly conferences drew the ire several members of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs during a heated oversight hearing last November.

Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., blasted top agency officials for their inability to explain wasteful conference spending, or how much their department spends annually on out-of-town employee get-togethers.

"I got the same old crap VA has been giving us for two years and I'm tired of it," Miller told the Examiner after the hearing.

Miller also vowed to ferret out waste in the agency by "digging in every corner" where he suspects veterans' interests are not being served.

Miller has called for the removal of VA Chief of Staff John Gingrich, who Miller says is ultimately responsible for the misspending because he "cavalierly approved an exorbitant conference budget" with no oversight.

The Examiner reported in October that performance evaluations of Sepulveda and Muellerweiss emphasized spending as much as possible of a $300 million training budget without regard for efficiency.

An Examiner investigation published in November uncovered a history of cronyism and mismanagement in the VA's human resources operation, with officials hiring friends and romantic partners, misspending government funds for personal use, and making false statements when questioned by investigators.

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