- Associated Press - Monday, June 1, 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) - Two senior officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs were suspended Monday after an audit found they charged subordinates money to attend a work-related party that featured psychic readings.

In a notice to Congress, the VA said it had temporarily suspended Lucy Filipov, the assistant director of the Philadelphia regional office, and Gary Hodge, who heads the Pension Management Center. Both employees will remain on the VA payroll pending an internal review to determine disciplinary action.

The VA said neither employee would be available for comment. Phone messages left Monday at Hodge’s Philadelphia home and Filipov’s residence in southern New Jersey were not immediately returned.

The department said it took allegations by the VA inspector general “seriously” following the audit released last Thursday in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by The Associated Press. That audit faulted Filipov for misusing her position and referred the matter to the Justice Department, which declined to take criminal action in favor of administrative discipline by the VA.

The audit found Filipov hosted a party where employees were charged $30 or more to attend, specifically for the purpose of having fortunes told by Hodge’s wife. It found employees “were generally not enamored of the psychic experience,” with one employee describing the payment as a “donation.”

The IG said Hodge acted improperly because he did not disclose his wife’s income on mandatory disclosure forms. Her profits from that party had been deposited in a joint bank account and used by the couple to pay for a vacation last year.

In comments included in last week’s report, Filipov said she considered the party a gathering of friends, rather than one involving subordinates. Hodge said his wife’s business was separate from his work and didn’t know what his wife’s income was.

Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., on Monday applauded the VA’s action, saying he hoped it was a sign the department will now hold officials strictly accountable for “reckless and harmful actions.”

He said both whistleblower reports and IG reviews had found “a level of systemic mismanagement” at the VA that demanded staff changes.

The Philadelphia office has been under close scrutiny following an initial IG report released in April that documented widespread problems such as neglected mail, untimely responses to more than 31,000 veterans’ inquiries and manipulation of dates to make old claims look new. Linda Halliday, the assistant inspector general, has suggested that Philadelphia’s problems might be indicative of a wider VA problem.

The VA is already conducting a separate review of the Philadelphia office to determine punishment in response to that April audit and had temporarily reassigned Hodge to a Washington D.C. post. He has now been suspended from Washington duties.

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Follow Hope Yen on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hopeyen1

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