More sunlight on VA’s Florida fun


Rep. Mel Watt is President Obama’s choice to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency. The Club for Growth feels otherwise. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
Al Kamen
Columnist October 29, 2013

Reader feedback is always welcome. Especially when it comes from government officials’ internal e-mails about a Loop item involving their agency.

So we were especially eager to see a new 97-page report from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on conferences held a couple of years ago by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The subtitle of the report, which blisters the agency, is “A Culture of Mismanagement and Reckless Spending.”

Seems former VA assistant secretary for human resources John Sepulveda was concerned about our July 2011 item on an Office of Government Ethics conference at a Marriott resort in Orlando.

His “Heads Up” e-mail to other VA officials noted that the item dinged the folks at the ethics agency for holding, in these parlous budget times, “costly conferences in tourist centers.” And “as it turns out,” he noted, the VA human resources team was using the same hotel later that summer.

So “in the spirit of risk management,” Sepulveda said, he had “staff preparing a fact sheet and talking points” to justify this “just in case someone” contacted us or “even a member of Congress.”

Naturally, we were contacted. But it seems that, despite the talking points — which the House committee’s report now finds to be “largely inaccurate” — the conference planners didn’t like our item, which was all of about 200 words.

One conference planner, Jolisa Dudley, wrote: “This guy is an [expletive], and clearly not interested in facts or accuracy, which makes him an irresponsible journalist.” My, my.

Another planner, Thomas Barritt, agreed, saying, “I think he had nothing to report on (besides twisting facts that were sent to him). The whole thing sounded poorly written.” (Hey, what do you want for a buck and a quarter — and free online — Tom Wolfe? John McPhee? ) “The fact that it was the last item in his column buried on page
A-15),” wrote Barritt, who’s now retired from VA, “tells me he had a slow news day.”

Well, not that slow. A subsequent VA inspector general’s investigation on that conference and another in Orlando — total cost, more than $6 million — sparked Sepulveda’s resignation. Not only that: Two other officials were placed on leave, and others resigned or were reassigned. The IG found that conference planners allowed up to $762, 000 in unauthorized or wasteful spending and accepted gifts, including spa treatments.

The committee report, replete with e-mails talking about reckless spending and joking about unnecessary costs (for example, “we are a large agency with deep pockets”), concludes that VA “must root out the culture of wasteful and entitled spending.”

Indeed, in one e-mail, a conference planner hails a newly shortened afternoon schedule: “WOOHOO — early day — PARTY!!!!!”

A second official responds: “The whole week will be a party Tom, what are you talking about?”

The shenanigans should be stunning. Sadly, we’ve seen many like this over the years, both at agencies and on congressional trips. Loop inquiries usually draw rebuttals in the form of detailed schedules showing day after day of grueling meetings, briefings, presentations and such. But a VA post-conference review “noted that many attendees did not attend training sessions because they were spending time at nearby attractions, including Disney theme parks.”

What? As Capt. Renault said to Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca”: “I’m shocked, shocked to find gambling is going on in here!”

Vote now, pay later?

There are ominous signs for the nomination of Rep. Mel Watt to the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

Seems the conservative Club for Growth isn’t keen on the North Carolina Democrat, and it is letting senators know that it’ll be watching the yeas and nays on his nomination.

The group noted in a friendly e-mail “reminder” Tuesday that the vote on Watt’s nomination is a key one — meaning it’s keeping score, and a “yes” vote would be a dreaded black mark on its annual congressional scorecard.

The pressure to oppose Watt even extends to a procedural vote that requires 60 votes, the reminder warns.

That could pose problems for Democrats, who we’re hearing are confident they can muster all 54 votes from their caucus, plus Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Watt’s home-state colleague. But that’s still short of the 60 they need to move Watt’s nomination to a final vote. The stern warning from the powerful conservative group could sap their prospects for finding a few more GOP votes.

Meanwhile, the White House is calling for his swift approval. Senior White House officials met with the heads of housing organization Monday, and according to a White House spokeswoman, the message during the meeting was that “the Watt confirmation is a top White House priority, that the Senate should move forward to confirm him this week, the President and his senior team will continue to push hard for Watt until he is confirmed and in place.”

Apparently, the opposition is nothing personal. The Club for Growth simply doesn’t like Watt’s calls for federal involvement in the mortgage industry. It would prefer something a little more dramatic: “The correct course of action, including putting this nomination aside, is to privatize Fannie and Freddie and shut down the FHFA,” the e-mail reads.

With Emily Heil

The blog: washingtonpost.com/
intheloop
. Twitter: @InTheLoopWP.

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