Topics: Veterans Affairs

Soap starlet at the center of taxpayer-financed VA drama

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News,Watchdog,Mark Flatten,Veterans Affairs

First of a three-part series

Raquel Thomas once played bit parts in a TV soap opera, but these days the glamorous model and Army veteran is a leading lady in a real-life, tax-paid drama at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The plot centers on a pair of lavish VA employee-training conferences in Orlando last year that cost at least $6.1 million. At least $762,000 was squandered for the events on things like promotional trinkets and parody videos.

DRAMA AT THE VA

First of a three-part series

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


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


Got information about problems at the VA? Contact Mark Flatten at mflatten@washingtonexaminer.com or 202-459-4929.

The story plays out in the VA's Washington, D.C., office of Human Resources and Administration, which for years has been riddled with high-level cronyism, inappropriate romance, credit card abuse, criminal referrals and false statements, according to multiple Inspector General's reports.

Thomas, a former Mrs. Maryland, now works in the VA's personnel office as a mid-level marketing specialist, making about $100,000 per year.

She maintains a side career as a model and television actress. "Boots to bikinis" is how her modeling bio puts it for the Army-ordnance-officer-turned-product-pitch-woman.

Raquel Riley Thomas accepts an award from the group Women Vets Rock. Presenting the award is DC Mayor Vincent Gray. (Click to see video.)

Thomas is faulted in a Sept. 30, 2012, IG report on the Orlando conferences for not telling her boss that agency lawyers warned against buying promotional items like the shopping bags, pedometers and squeeze bottles handed out to attendees at a cost of $98,000. (See the IG's report regarding Raquel Thomas, with annotations by The Washington Examiner, in the embedded viewer below this story.)

Her name was redacted by the IG, but The Washington Examiner identified Thomas through other documents, including a prior investigation referenced in the September report. Her husband also confirmed her identity to the newspaper.


DEANES

Tonya Deanes, deputy assistant VA secretary for human resources, authorized the promotional purchases, but told investigators she instructed underlings to clear the action with VA lawyers beforehand.

That task fell to Thomas, who failed to tell higher-ups the lawyers said such purchases were inappropriate, according to the IG report. Deanes claimed she only learned of that advice when the IG probe started in August 2012.

Thomas repeatedly failed to tell investigators of the warning and only admitted her failure when confronted with evidence of the fact. She claimed to the IG that it was an unintentional oversight.

The report does not deal with whether Thomas was responsible for other Orlando conference overspending. Jet-setting VA personnel administrators traveled the country scouting locations and lapping up perks like limousine and helicopter rides; manicures, pedicures and massages, the IG said.

They also authorized other expensive and wasteful items, including a $50,000 video parody of the movie "Patton," The Examiner found.

Seventeen VA officials received bonuses or other rewards for planning the conferences, including four who got cash payouts of $2,000. It could not be determined if a $2,000 bonus Thomas received in 2011 was related to the conference.


RON THOMAS

Thomas refused to comment when contacted by The Examiner. Her husband, Ron Thomas, himself a former top VA official, suggested she is being unfairly blamed for decisions of higher-ups who authorized the spending, but otherwise declined to discuss the IG investigation.

"Leadership is leadership," said Ron Thomas, a West Point graduate and former Army officer. "I never went to a leadership class where they said blame it on everybody else but yourself."

Deanes could not be reached for comment. When questioned by IG investigators, she blamed two subordinates, Thomas Barritt and Jolisa Dudley.

The IG largely accepted that explanation, concluding that Deanes' subordinates "betrayed her confidence when they engaged in misconduct" by spending without concern about costs. The report faulted Deanes and other top VA officials, however, for delegating so much responsibility to lower-level staff members.

HENSLEY

Deanes and the Thomases played pivotal roles in an earlier investigation of Willie Hensley, former acting assistant VA secretary for human resources, the agency's top personnel post.

Hensley was one of several top officials in the office who abused his authority by breaking personnel rules in helping friends get high-paying jobs in the agency, according to the IG.

Hensley pulled strings to hire Raquel Thomas in February 2009, and had an "inappropriate personal relationship" with another subordinate, according to a September 2010 IG probe.

Got information about other problems at the VA -- or any other federal agency? Contact Mark Flatten at mflatten@washingtonexaminer.com or 202-459-4929. 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:

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

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

Read the section of the VA Inspector General's report on the Orlando conferences pertaining to Raquel Thomas, 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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