Reader feedback is always welcome. Even more so 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 House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s 97-page report on conferences held by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The report’s subtitle, which blisters the VA, talks about “a culture of mismanagement and reckless spending” at conferences a couple years ago.
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 the Marriott Orlando.
His “Heads Up” e-mail to other VA officials noted that the item dinged the ethics agency folks 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 in August.
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 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 a**, 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 the VA, “tells me he had a slow news day.”
Well, not that slow. A subsequent VA inspector-general investigation on that conference and another in Orlando — total cost more than $6 million — sparked Sepulveda’s resignation, 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 House committee report, replete with e-mails talking about reckless spending and jokes about unnecessary costs — for example, “we are a large agency with deep pockets” — concludes that the 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 police Capt. Renault said to Humphrey Bogart in the classic movie “Casablanca”: “I’m shocked, shocked to find gambling is going on in here!”
The VA, an agency spokesman said in a statement, “has zero tolerance for any misuse of taxpayer dollars” and that after the IG report it ” took immediate action to implement all of the IG’s recommendations to strengthen oversight, improve accountability, and hold employees responsible for misconduct.”
A committee hearing scheduled for Wednesday is to review how the VA’s doing in fixing this.