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Another former Obama administration figure pleads the 5th

Ex-VA official won’t answer Congress’ questions on lavish conferences

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In an increasingly familiar scene, a high-ranking former agency official went to Capitol Hill and pleaded the Fifth Amendment on Wednesday.

This time, it was a former assistant secretary at the Department of Veteran Affairs who refused to testify to a House panel investigating a pair of agency conferences in Florida in 2011 criticized for lavish spending.

John Sepulveda oversaw the pair of human resources training conferences that cost more than $6 million combined, drawing comparisons to an infamous 2010 General Services Administration conference scandal that drew taxpayer ire.

"It's a privilege to remain silent, sir," Mr. Sepulveda told House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell E. Issa, California Republican.

His refusal to answer questions comes months after two other officials appeared before Congress and pleaded the Fifth Amendment in unrelated scandals.

 

 

In June, Greg Rosemen, a deputy director at the IRS, refused to talk about his role in awarding contracts worth up to $500 million to a company owned by a friend whose business received veteran set-aside contract status based on a decades-old football injury.

A month earlier, Lois Lerner, former head of the IRS tax exempt division, declined to discuss the IRS scrutinizing nonprofit applications from tea party and other conservative groups.

Mr. Sepulveda also refused to basic questions about his job status. Nor would he say if he was receiving full retirement benefits.

"Mr. Sepulveda, you're no longer an employee of the VA, is that correct?" Mr. Issa asked.

"On the advice of my counsel I respectfully decline to answer based on my Fifth Amendment constitutional privilege," the former VA official replied.

Mr. Sepulveda was called to testify after a House investigative report — which followed an earlier review from the VA's Office of Inspector General — found VA planners treated trips to scout out potential conference locations as little more than taxpayer-subsidized vacations.

The planners took thousands of dollars in meals, spas, gift baskets and limo and helicopter rides from hotels hoping to host the VA's lavish conference business, according to the report.

They also rewarded themselves with massages, manicures and pedicures at a hotel spa, but later they got an even bigger reward: tens of thousands of dollars in bonuses for a job well done.

"This is a pattern where we see bonuses are an entitlement, they're automatic," Mr. Issa said.

The report said Mr. Sepulveda was responsible for staying on top of the conference plans. And the inspector general found he lied when he told investigators he didn't know anything about one of the most widely publicized instances of questionable spending — a $50,000 parody video.

Richard Griffin, the VA's deputy inspector general, said his office made 49 recommendations in the wake of its report on the conferences, though Mr. Issa noted that more than half of them have not yet been implemented by the VA.

"The problem was [that] no one was in charge," Mr. Griffin said.

And even though several officials were removed from their jobs, nobody was fired in the traditional sense, Mr. Issa said. Even if they were kicked out of the department, employees were allowed to retire and collect retirement benefits, he said.

VA officials said they've enacted reforms to make sure the wasteful spending wouldn't happen again.

"As a result of VA's internal review, directed by Secretary [Eric] Shinseki, the department issued policy on September 26, 2012, that reflects the commitment to strengthen oversight, improve accountability and safeguard taxpayer dollars," Gina Farrisee, the VA's assistant secretary for human resources, testified.

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