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Watchdog: Follow the Money

House committee to probe 'culture of irresponsible spending' on Veterans Affairs conferences

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Lavish spending at a pair of training conferences put on by the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2011 will be investigated at a hearing Wednesday by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

The conferences in Orlando cost taxpayers about $6.1 million, as much as $762,000 of which was wasted, according to an investigation by the VA inspector general issued in October 2012. Expenses included extravagances such as a $50,000 video parody of the movie "Patton" and $98,000 for trinkets like pedometers, notebooks and water bottles.

Among those scheduled to testify is John Sepulveda, who at the time was the assistant secretary for human resources and administration at VA, and his successor, Gina Farrisee.

Sepulveda resigned the weekend before the IG report was issued. One other top VA executive who helped plan the conferences, Alice Muellerweiss, dean of the VA Learning University that hosted the conferences, quit in January.

VA staff who planned the conferences also traveled the country scouting potential locations, costing taxpayers more than $10,000, while enjoying freebies that included show tickets and limousine and helicopter rides.

The hearing is part of the oversight committee's ongoing efforts to investigate wasteful federal spending on conferences government-wide. Previous committee hearings have focused on the General Services Administration and the Internal Revenue Service.

“The Committee’s investigation revealed a culture of irresponsible spending, a lack of internal controls, and blatant disregard for saving taxpayer dollars,” background information released by the committee states. “E-mails obtained by the Committee demonstrate that conference planners lost sight of the rationale for organizing the conferences. Several top Department officials committed serious errors during the planning process, including failed oversight and ineffective leadership.

“E-mails obtained by the Committee show that the Department’s conference planners spent taxpayer dollars recklessly and unapologetically. “

The Washington Examiner reported both Sepulveda and Muellerweiss had incentives to spend money rather than control costs in their employee performance evaluations.

Seventeen other VA employees involved in planning and conducting the conferences received more than $43,000 in bonuses and paid time off for their work on the events. The bonuses ranged from $750 to $5,500.

Several lower-level employees were even rewarded for things the IG condemned as wasteful, including production of the "Patton" parody.

The hearing will be at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday in Room 2154 of the Rayburn House Office Building.

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