- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 2, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Americans expect the nation to take care of our veterans, especially during war time when the needs of recently wounded

warriors increase. But at the Department of Veterans Affairs, some bureaucrats are using their positions to enrich themselves. A report issued last month by the VA inspector general sounds the alarm to shocking allegations of misconduct at a department charged with caring for our heroes.

Forty-two heavily redacted pages detail the antics of Diane Hartmann, the VA’s director of national programs and special events. In this role, her primary duty was to coordinate rehabilitative events for disabled veterans, but, according to the report, Ms. Hartmann had other interests. For example, Ms. Hartmann allegedly spent her work time coming up with strategies that would contribute to a successful grand opening event for a friend’s new business. Among the files investigators say they found on her government-issued computer were marketing plans, invitation letters, mailing lists and advertising flyers for this private event.

The IG report alleges that Ms. Hartmann used threats to compel subordinates to join the marketing effort. She also purportedly charged taxpayers for $727.37 in travel expenses for herself and an underling to make a trip to attend the friend’s grand opening.

The misuse of travel expenses didn’t stop there. By arranging meetings described as “unnecessary” at medical centers in places like Colorado, Las Vegas and San Diego, she was able to rack up thousands in taxpayer-funded travel for what she called official business. Investigators described photographs from Ms. Hartmann’s computer that showed her at “work” on these trips - golfing, sightseeing and taking a cruise on Stars and Stripes, the America’s Cup yacht. Time stamps on the digital images suggested to investigators that some fibbing may have been used to justify the junkets. In one case, according to the report, “the project that Ms. Hartmann supposedly went to see did not physically exist.”

All the travel must have taken a toll, as Ms. Hartmann, according to the report, granted herself 306 hours worth of compensatory time off. When Ms. Hartmann’s superiors learned of the pending investigation into her conduct, they tipped her off and she purportedly shredded her time sheets in an unsuccessful effort to hide the offense. Believe it or not, according to the inspector general, this is not considered a crime. The government system is so tilted in favor of preserving the status quo that rogue career bureaucrats only face “administrative sanction” for malfeasance of the sort described above.

Most Americans would consider a salary of $155,500 (not counting bonus) to be a godsend, especially in such a troubled economy. Although she was making triple the median household income, that apparently wasn’t enough loot for Ms. Hartmann. Investigators recommended that she be forced to pay back $26,704.48 in extra benefits she appropriated. That was the harshest penalty suggested.

The scariest aspect of this story is how little coverage it has received. In official Washington, misconduct of this sort among so-called public servants is considered business as usual. Little thought is given to being responsible stewards of public funds. But if lying, destroying evidence and misappropriating public funds don’t constitute a crime, then the laws need to be rewritten. Plundering government employees should, at the very least, be fired on the spot for putting themselves above their duty.

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