The top human resources official at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs resigned a day before the scheduled release of an inspector general’s report on questionable spending tied to two conferences in Florida.
The agency announced in a brief statement yesterday that Secretary Eric Shinseki had accepted the resignation of John Sepulveda, the VA’s assistant secretary for human resources. The department’s inspector general plans to release its report at 3 p.m. Washington time today following a probe into the two VA events held last year, Catherine Gromek, a spokeswoman for the watchdog office, said in a Sept. 28 e-mail.
Some VA conference planners may have received improper gifts such as show tickets and limousine and helicopter rides from hotels under consideration for the events, lawmakers have said. The conferences under review took place at a Marriott International Inc. (MAR) resort near Disney World in Orlando and cost a total of about $5 million, the VA has said.
Sepulveda, 58, was sworn in by Shinseki in 2009. He said in a phone interview that he submitted his letter of resignation on Sept. 28. His resignation was effective yesterday, according to the VA statement.
The former assistant secretary declined to discuss the conferences or the inspector general’s report.
“It’s been a great experience working at VA serving veterans and serving under a really great leader,” Sepulveda said. “I’ve been privileged to be part of this team.”
Sepulveda was on a list of speakers at the Orlando conferences, which featured meditation, Pilates and water aerobics, according to agendas posted online.
Conference costs included about $52,000 for a video spoof of the Oscar-winning movie “Patton.” The parody of the film “should never have been produced and this misuse of taxpayer funds is completely unacceptable,” Nathan Naylor, the VA’s deputy assistant secretary for public affairs, said in an e- mailed statement in August. He said new spending rules have been put in place since the 2011 events.
The inspector general report comes almost six months after a separate review found the General Services Administration spent more than $823,000 for a conference near Las Vegas. GSA Administrator Martha Johnson resigned amid fallout from the scandal.
The VA is seeking an outside company to review its conference planning and related spending, including an “analysis of gifts, gratuities, or unbilled services” given to its employees, according to documents posted on a federal government website. It is asking the contractor to randomly select from among 948 VA-sponsored conferences that had at least 50 attendees held between January 2009 and June 2012.
VA officials spent about $100 million on conferences, including travel costs, during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2011, Todd Grams, the agency’s chief financial officer, told the House Committee on Veterans Affairs during a Sept. 20 hearing.
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