Topics: Veterans Affairs

Cronyism, deceit haunt VA office that planned costly conferences

By |
News,Watchdog,Mark Flatten,Veterans Affairs

Second of a three-part series

Willie Hensley was a top personnel executive in the federal government's second-largest agency when he pulled strings to help two women land jobs at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

But Hensley's manipulation of civil service regulations in 2008 and 2009 is just part of a federal workplace drama featuring illicit romance, official deceit and insider favoritism.

DRAMA AT THE VA
Second in a three-part series
Coming tomorrow: Rules fail to restrain big-spending VA officials
Published yesterday: Soap starlet at the center of taxpayer-financed VA drama
Got tips about problems inside the VA? Contact reporter Mark Flatten at mflatten@washingtonexaminer.com or 202-459-4929.

It is the type of sordid drama that has long played out at the VA's Human Resources and Administration office that wasted hundreds of thousands of tax dollars on two employee training conferences in Orlando last year, according to an Inspector General's report released Oct. 1.

Hensley has since left the agency and formed a consulting company. His successor as the agency's top personnel officer, John Sepulveda, resigned the Sunday before public release of the IG's Orlando conferences report. Sepulveda is the only VA official to lose his job because of the overspending at the $6.1 million Orlando conferences.


HENSLEY

Hensley had an "inappropriate personal relationship" with one woman in a New Orleans VA office, according to a September 2010 IG report. The second woman he helped was Raquel Thomas, the wife of a Hensley friend and fraternity brother who was a former top VA official. (See the complete Inspector General's report, with annotations by The Washington Examiner, in the embedded viewer below this story.)

Hensley was the highest-ranking personnel officer at VA when he got Thomas her job.

Both women intimidated their supervisors, often invoking their relationship to Hensley, the IG said. One was allowed to work from home, though her bosses saw little work product.

SEPULVEDA

Thomas similarly "bragged to her colleagues that her husband... was 'tight' with Mr. Hensley; VA would give her anything she wanted; colleagues should fear her because she could 'take care of them,'" according to the IG.

Hensley refused to discuss his relationship with the New Orleans woman, and The Washington Examiner was unable to identify her by name.

He said he did nothing improper by helping Thomas, whose husband, Ron, was formerly deputy assistant VA secretary for policy.


RAQUEL THOMAS

The Examiner identified Raquel Thomas through the IG's description of her husband, who acknowledged that she was named in the Hensley investigation.

Raquel Thomas was criticized in the more recent IG report for failing to tell her supervisors prior to the Orlando conferences that VA lawyers said buying $98,000 in promotional items for attendees would be illegal.


RON THOMAS

Raquel and Ron Thomas refused to comment on the specifics of the investigations.

Hensley and the New Orleans woman kept their relationship from others in the agency when he helped her land a job in his chain of command in February 2008, according to the IG.

At the time, the woman faced discipline for violating security rules and mismanaging more than $1.2 million in VA funds she controlled.

She also had a pending discrimination complaint against the agency because she was not allowed to work from home.

Hensley bypassed normal rules and ordered that the woman be hired as a supervisor under him, even though there were no such openings, according to the IG.


DEANES

To resolve the woman's discrimination complaint, Hensley appointed a lieutenant, Tonya Deanes, to negotiate a settlement. The deal she struck reversed the woman's seven-day suspension from the earlier disciplinary case, repaid her wages from the suspension and gave her an additional $10,000, which agency officials could not explain, the IG said.

Deanes was one of two senior VA officials overseeing the Orlando conferences.

Hensley also violated personnel rules when he helped Raquel Thomas get a job as a marketing specialist in the department's central personnel office. Thomas was a self-employed model and actress when her husband asked Hensley to help her find work at VA.

The IG said Thomas was unqualified for the position she was given due to Hensley's influence in February 2009. She also inflated her starting salary to more than $100,000 by exaggerating her previous income.

Hensley denied intervening for either woman. But investigators found extensive telephone and email communications between Hensley and both women before they were hired, and concluded he was not telling the truth.

The IG referred its investigation to the Justice Department for prosecution but no charges were filed against Hensley or either woman.

The report said Hensley and Raquel Thomas made "material false statements" under oath. The IG refused to discuss its probe of the two.

Hensley told The Examiner he left the agency voluntarily before hanging up when asked for comment.

Contact Mark Flatten at mflatten@washingtonexaminer.com or 202-459-4976. Examiner Data Editor Jennifer Peebles contributed to this story.

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

More in this series:

Coming tomorrow: Rules fail to restrain big-spending VA officials

Published yesterday: Soap starlet at the center of taxpayer-financed VA drama

Read the VA Inspector General's report pertaining to Willie Hensley, with annotations by The Washington Examiner

Click the box in the lower-left corner of the document viewer to see the embedded document larger on a full screen.

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