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Topics: Veterans Affairs

Former VA personnel chief faulted by IG

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News,Watchdog,Mark Flatten,Veterans Affairs

Cronyism and bad judgment by the recently ousted head of personnel at the Department of Veterans Affairs led to the hiring of four top agency officials previously slammed for misconduct or poor performance at other federal agencies, according to documents obtained today by The Washington Examiner.

John Sepulveda gave preferential treatment when he hired his top advisors shortly after being confirmed as the VA's assistant secretary for human resources and administration in May 2009, the report issued last year by the agency's inspector general says.

Sepulveda is the only person to lose his job over extravagant spending at a pair of VA training conferences in Orlando last year. Agency officials refuse to say whether he was paid a lucrative severance.

Four of five people Sepulveda hired "had misconduct or performance-related problems" at other federal agencies where they had worked, the IG concluded in the heavily redacted report done in April 2011.

Previous conduct by Sepulveda's underlings included nepotism, abuse of subordinates, creating a hostile work environment and poor performance.

Yet Sepulveda bypassed normal hiring procedures - including required background checks - when he got them jobs. IG investigators concluded Sepulveda did not engage in illegal personnel practices, but showed poor judgment and appeared to give preferential treatment to people he knew.

The IG memo was not published on the agency's website. It was first revealed in documents obtained by GovernmentAttic.org through Freedom of Information Act requests.

The Examiner sought the same memo in an October FOIA. The agency produced it Monday.

Sepulveda resigned the day before the IG released a report Oct. 1 detailing overspending of roughly $762,000 at the two Orlando conferences that featured, among much else, a $50,000 "Patton parody" video and $72,350 in unauthorized catering and coffee break refreshments.

The Orlando investigation faulted Sepulveda for failing to control wasteful spending for the $6.1 million events planned by his department. He also was accused of making false statements to IG investigators when questioned about whether he authorized the Patton video.

Sepulveda could not be reached Monday for comment. VA officials also did not respond to a request for an interview for this story.

The Examiner previously reported that problems of cronyism, waste and deception run deep in the human resources office at VA, which planned the conferences.

Several top VA officials, including Sepulveda's predecessor, engaged in improper personnel practices to get jobs for personal friends, the Examiner reported last month.

One of the IG reports reviewed by the Examiner referenced a prior memorandum that found four VA employees were hired in a four-month period, even though they had been fired or were facing termination at other agencies. That report gave no details.

The VA IG's office only produced the original memorandum requested by The Examiner Monday, after it was clear the newspaper had already obtained it through GovernmentAttic.org. Both versions include the same extensive redactions.

Sepulveda hired five people to top positions on his immediate staff between September 2009 and January 2010, the newly released memorandum states. Four of them had past problems at other agencies.

Sepulveda had prior professional relationships with two of them when they worked together at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

While redactions make it unclear what prior disciplinary actions the four faced, it does state that two of them "falsified employment records" by failing to disclose information about their prior employment when they applied at VA.

Those two are Mara Patermaster and Mary Santiago, both of whom Sepulveda hired as special assistants.

Santiago has since left the agency. Patermaster's status is unclear but her Linked-In profile also indicates she no longer works there.

Mark Flatten is a member of The Washington Examiner's special reporting team.

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