A top Department of Veterans Affairs executive received tens of thousands of dollars in bonuses even after an internal investigation found she lied about having a master’s degree, according to a senior member of Congress who has asked the department to justify the bonus.
Sheila Cullen, director of VA’s Sierra Pacific Network, received a $21,000 bonus in 2009 and $23,100 the following year. House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, Florida Republican, disclosed the bonus in a letter last week to Sloan Gibson, acting VA secretary.
The Washington Times reported last month that a 2009 inspector general’s report found Ms. Cullen falsely claimed in numerous official documents over the years that she’d received a master’s degree from Bernard M. Baruch College-Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
When pressed by investigators about the fact she never received the degree, Ms. Cullen said she didn’t know she had claimed having the degree and she didn’t know who wrote her resume.
Mr. Miller called that explanation “laughable” in his June 13 letter to the VA.
“I find the lack of candor exhibited by Ms. Cullen to be utterly reprehensible, especially considering the ongoing investigation into the VA where the credibility of information provided by VA senior executives has been called into question,” Mr. Miller wrote.
VA officials were not immediately available for comment Monday.
As head of the VA’s Sierra Pacific Network, Ms. Cullen oversees 50 VA facilities serving more than 1 million veterans. She was already in the job when the VA’s inspector general investigated her academic credentials in 2009.
VA officials declined to say last month whether she faces any discipline after the watchdog’s report, and an inspector general spokeswoman said whether Ms. Cullen had a master’s degree was irrelevant to her current job.
Still, the lack of candor from such a senior official troubles Mr. Miller, whose committee has been investigating a widening scandal into falsification of wait times at multiple VA health care facilities across the country.
In his letter to Mr. Gibson, Mr. Miller noted that making a false statements is against the law, “which is often met with termination of current, and disqualification from future, federal employment.”
In the inspector general’s 2009 investigative report to VA officials on Ms. Cullen’s academic claims, officials did not cite any potential punishment but recommended an ethics refresher course.
“Ms. Cullen falsified the fact that she had a master’s degree on numerous occasions, including a form for a background investigation and applications for promotions, and throughout our investigation, she continued to make assertions that she did not misrepresent having a master’s degree,” the inspector general’s office reported in the July 7, 2009, memo to the VA.
Ms. Cullen confirmed in an email last month that she was interviewed by the VA’s inspector general.
“I completed two years of graduate school however did not complete a thesis and therefore was not awarded a degree,” she wrote in an email.
“This status was known when I was hired,” she said.
While hiring forms accurately noted that Ms. Cullen, who started with the VA in 1973, was a graduate student, subsequent personnel forms — including several involving promotions — wrongly stated that she’d obtained a master’s degree, according to the inspector general.
On several other applications and promotion requests she claimed to hold an Master of Business Administration — another false statement, investigators said.
When investigators asked Ms. Cullen for copies of her transcripts, she kept them waiting for months, then said she didn’t realize she had submitted inaccurate information, according to the inspector generals memo.
Mr. Miller gave Mr. Sloan until June 20 to tell him when VA officials first learned that Ms. Cullen provided false information on her employment records and what disciplinary action she faced. He also demanded Mr. Sloan justify the bonuses paid out to Ms. Cullen even after officials learned about the inspector general investigation.