Former Dept. of Veterans Affairs chief pleads the Fifth and refuses to testify about lavish conferences that cost more than $6 MILLIONBy David Martosko, U.s. Political Editor
John Sepulveda oversaw the conferences, which included the screening of a parody video based on 'Patton,' whose production cost the Treasury more than $52,000.
But in front of the House Oversight Committee, he chose to remain silent, taking advantage of a clause in the U.S. Constitution intended to protect citizens from incriminating themselves.
'You are not excused,' committee chairman Rep. Darrell Issa ultimately told Sepulveda before sending him away. 'You are dismissed.'
That report determined that the planners spent $84,000 on 'promotional items such as branded pens, highlighters, hand sanitizers and USB drives.'
The VA is the federal government's second largest cabinet-level department.
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In a committee report released in conjunction with the hearing, investigators found that the officials who planned the conferences spend lavishly on themselves when they traveled to scout locations for the events.
Their perks included limo and helicopter rides, spa treatments, concert tickets and cash bonuses for doing their jobs.
The report's authors complained that at a time when the VA has a backlog of 840,000 veterans' disability claims, managers saw nothing wrong with taking 1,800 employees to Florida for four-day vacations.
The most cringe-worthy record to emerge has been a 5-minute video montage of VA employees at the 2011 conference, dancing and singing to a karaoke version of Michael Jackson's 'Beat It.'
As two women bumped their hips on-screen, a motivational speaker talking about inspired work habits quips, 'Now that's impact!'
'You have, just, the greatest team leading your organization right now,' an emcee says in the video, from a speaker's podium.
Officials drew comparisons with the wasteful spending they uncovered after a 2010 General Services Administration conference in Las Vegas.
That event's enduring image was a GSA manager sipping wine in a spa tub at the M Hotel, uring a 'pre-meeting' trip to visit the venue.
That event cost the agency $830,000 – a mere fraction of what the VA spent in Orlando, Florida.
The committee said its investigation 'revealed a culture of willful waste at the Department and widespread disregard for how taxpayer dollars are spent.'
Those dollars – at least $6.1 million of them – could have been used to improve or accelerate services for military veterans, members of Congress said Wednesday.
'Our veterans were abused – and I used that word carefully, but I use it deliberately,' said Issa.
In a written statement, the Veterans Affairs Department said the 'allegations of misconduct received by the VA Office of Inspector General regarding two training conferences in 2011 are unacceptable,' and added that VA Secretary Eric Shinseki would 'hold accountable' employees who 'misused taxpayer dollars or violated our standards of conduct.'
Another emailed a vendor for promotional items, asking about padding an order in order to max out her $3,000 approved spending limit: 'Should we add something else to make it as close to $3000 as possible?'
'In this place you have to get it all in when you can,' she added.
'No, there is no price range,' her supervisor later wrote to another prospective conference vendor.
VA Deputy Inspector General Richard Griffin testified that his office had recommended 49 specific actions to the agency's top brass as a result of the episode.
Issa responded that less than half of those directives have been implemented
'The problem was,' Griffin said, 'no one was in charge.'