As guests chatted over drinks and snacks, those who wanted to communicate with the dead added their cash to a pile in the kitchen of the South Jersey home. Each met privately with the medium, who held a crystal and said a prayer as the séances began.
It was a weekend gathering of friends and coworkers. But on Thursday, the party became the focus of a report by federal investigators, because the host was the acting director of the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs benefits office, the guests were her employees, and the medium - who calls herself "the Angel Whisperer" - was a VA manager's wife.
Investigators said the host, Lucy Filipov, violated ethics rules by promoting her coworker's wife's business and "recruiting" her employees to be customers, at $35 per reading.
The otherworldly event is the latest incident to spark criticism of the Philadelphia VA regional benefits office, which has been among the beleaguered agency's most scrutinized.
Last month, the VA's Office of Inspector General said its nearly yearlong investigation confirmed widespread problems at the Germantown facility, including manipulated claims, ignored inquiries, and toxic relationships between staff and management.
Thursday's report was an outgrowth of that probe. In it, the assistant VA inspector general for investigations, James O'Neill, recommended that the VA take any administrative action it deemed necessary against Filipov and Gary Hodge, the medium's husband.
Willie Clark, director for the VA Benefits Administration's eastern area, said Filipov and Hodge would receive a refresher on ethics training. He said he would talk with the Office of General Counsel and human resources before deciding if disciplinary action was necessary.
Hodge - who is manager of the office's pension center but was temporarily transferred to a post in Washington last month - and his wife, Loretta, did not return a message left at their home.
Loretta Hodge, according to an online resumé, refers to herself as the Angel Whisperer. The resumé lists her skills as "communicating with deceased loved ones, Spirit, intuitive counseling and messages from the Angels." Her husband told investigators she earned more than $31,000 as a psychic between 2012 and 2014.
O'Neill said Filipov, now assistant director of the office, became friends with Hodge's wife through office functions. Last year, Filipov and other coworkers who often have lunch together in Hodge's office discussed hiring the woman for a party, the report said.
"Can you ask her about the details," Filipov wrote in an e-mail to a coworker, "how many people she would suggest, how do we pay her, per person, etc."
The medium responded that it "depends on the type of party."
"Individual readings are $35.00," her e-mail said, "minimum of 6, maximum of 10 people. Gallery (everyone in the same room) is $30 per person and a minimum of 10-15 people or more."
Filipov opted for individual readings, then began recruiting employees and contacting friends outside of the VA to attend, investigators said.
She told one that a session with Hodge was "less a psychic and more a talk-to-dead-people kind of thing," according to the inspectors.
Their report does not give Filipov's home address, but public records indicate she has owned a house in the Camden County town of Blackwood for nearly two decades.
Guests told investigators that on the night of the party, they paid $15 to $35 for time with the psychic. Most said they had reservations but generally wanted to participate.
One employee said she did not believe in mediums for religious reasons but paid $30 "out of curiosity."
Questioned by investigators, Filipov said the party was a private gathering of friends. But investigators said the employees who attended did not stay to socialize and left almost immediately after their readings. One guest said attendees bickered over who would get their reading first because it was late and they wanted to get home.
The guests "were generally not enamored of the psychic experience," O'Neill wrote. One told investigators that Loretta Hodge foretold events but did not communicate with the dead.
O'Neill called Filipov's friendship with the employees problematic, and said establishing personal relationships with some subordinates "gives the appearance of preference for those few employees."
Investigators also found that Hodge failed to report his wife's income as a medium on financial disclosure forms with the Office of Government Ethics or pay federal or state taxes on it prior to the 2014 tax year. Hodge told investigators she made $6,960 in 2012, $12,850 in 2013, and $13,955 in 2014 for her services.
O'Neill said he referred the matters pertaining to Hodge's wife's income to the U.S. Department of Justice, which declined to prosecute.
U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan, a Delaware County Republican, called the report "a turn for the surreal" in an office already under fire for mismanagement and misconduct.
Rep. Jeff Miller (R., Fla.), chairman of the Committee on Veterans Affairs, said the incident was another example of officials in Philadelphia "exhibiting horrible judgment."