Oversight

VA leaders defend chief of staff

The Veterans Affairs Department responded to lawmakers’ call for the removal of the VA Chief of Staff John Gingrich (pictured) by saying the agency already has dealt with several senior and career employees in the wake of its conference spending scandal.

In on Oct. 10 statement, a VA spokesman said VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has addressed Gingrich’s conduct involving the 2011 conferences – though no details were provided on the exact reprimand or steps taken. The VA paid roughly $6.1 million for two conferences, but the planning was marred by leadership failures and ethical lapses, the VA’s inspector general found.

John Sepulveda, VA’s assistant secretary for human resources and administration, already stepped down from his post, and Shinseki put two career VA employees on leave pending review of their conduct. He is further investigating employees’ conduct as cited in the IG’s report released Oct. 1.

“As we said when this report was issued, any misuse of taxpayer dollars is unacceptable and that is why Secretary Shinseki took immediate action,” the spokesman said.

John Gingrich, VASen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), however, believe the spending decisions point directly to Gingrich’s leadership lapses and dismissal of oversight.

“The VA Chief of Staff cavalierly approved an exorbitant conference budget under the guise of a process meant to safeguard against” waste and overspending, the legislators wrote in an Oct. 9 letter to Shinseki.

Burr is the ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and Miller is the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman. “Mr. Gingrich’s removal as chief of staff is the unequivocal way to deliver that message of accountability,” they wrote.

In December 2010, Gingrich approved Sepulveda’s $8 million budget for three conferences, even though it had minimal details and requested authorization to train 3,000 people at a cost of more than $2,600 per person.

In a statement to the IG, Gingrich acknowledged his mistakes.

“I signed the thing authorizing the conferences,” he told the IG’s investigators. “So, I should have made sure the conferences were executed better. Now, I think people should have done more prudent work. But, it’s my signature upon that page. And, I take the full responsibility. And, I should have asked, probably, harder questions than I did.” Gingrich added, though, that many other senior executives have responsibilities for the execution as well.

The IG recommended Shinseki confer with human resource officials outside VA’s central office and with attorneys in the General Counsel’s office to determine which action to take against Gingrich.

The VA spokesman also said Shinseki has implemented policies that strengthen oversight, improve accountability and safeguard taxpayer dollars.

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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