- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 2, 2014

Oscar the Grouch will have lots of company in his garbage can on Friday.

Despite President Obama ordering a new “culture of accountability” at the Department of Veterans Affairs, a congressional hearing Friday will focus on persistent management problems at the agency’s Philadelphia office, where complaints range from phony record keeping to managers comparing veterans to the Sesame Street character Oscar to allegations that a VA manager encouraged employees to pay his wife to read their fortunes.

The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs will hold the hearing at a community college in Burlington County, New Jersey, which is part of the Philadelphia regional office’s three-state coverage area. A committee spokesman said the probe will focus on “mismanagement, cooking the books in order to make the backlog of claims appear smaller and low employee morale.”

Witnesses will include Kristen Ruell, a whistleblower from the Philadelphia office; Linda Halliday, an assistant inspector general at the VA; and Diana Rubens, director of the Philadelphia regional VA office.

A committee hearing in July uncovered significant problems at the Philadelphia office, including mail bins overflowing with claims that dated back to 2011, benefits that had been paid twice, and employees manipulating the dates on old claims to make them appear newer. The committee said it wants to address whether VA management “has taken appropriate measures to address past failures.”

Lawmakers are also expected to ask VA managers about the embarrassing revelation in August that the agency used a training guide depicting disgruntled veterans as Oscar the Grouch, the character who lives in a garbage can. The guide included tips for employees to discern when veterans are nearing an “outburst.” The VA apologized for the episode.

A source in the Philadelphia office told The Washington Times that employees have reported to the Inspector General’s office an incident in which a senior VA manager invited employees to a party at his home, where they were encouraged to pay $30 each for his wife to tell their fortunes.

“The employee [felt] compelled to go along with the supervisor’s ‘suggestion’ in fear of reprisal,” the employee said.

The release of the inspector general’s report is expected soon.

The Philadelphia VA office provides benefits for about 825,000 veterans in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. In July, VA officials said they had taken immediate action to correct the problems, and were conducting reviews at other regional offices with similar challenges.

Since the wide-ranging VA scandal came to light last spring, Mr. Obama has appointed a new VA secretary, Robert McDonald, and ordered dozens of reforms.

“What we’ve come to learn is that the misconduct we’ve seen at too many facilities — with long wait times, and veterans not receiving care and folks cooking the books — is outrageous and inexcusable,” Mr. Obama said in a speech to the American Legion’s annual convention last month.

Mr. McDonald said this week the VA is working to earn back the agency’s trust “one veteran at a time.”

One whistleblower, Army veteran Christian DeJohn, said he has faced reprisals for bringing some of the problems to light in the Philadelphia office.

“I’m being set up for reprisal by work being withheld, errors called non-stop, points invalidated, etc.,” Mr. DeJohn wrote to the VA secretary this week. “This is the time-honored way to deal with whistle blowers at the [Philadelphia office]; clearly the word has not spread down to the [regional office] level that whistle blower retaliation and reprisal are not acceptable.”

Another veteran, retired Army Sgt. Ken Carlisle, said he has been trying for three years to get clarification from the Philadelphia office about its policy relating to claims from a SCUD missile attack during the Gulf War in 1991.

While employed at the Philadelphia office in 2011, Mr. Carlisle said, he and other employees were told during a training session that “no SCUD claims were to be processed.” Mr. Carlisle said he was shocked to hear about the policy because he witnessed the aftermath of an Iraqi SCUD missile attack on a U.S. Army barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, on Feb. 25, 1991, in which 28 U.S. soldiers were killed and more than 90 were wounded.

Mr. Carlisle’s claim for benefits was recently approved after years of fighting through red tape at the agency. But he said he’s still trying to get an answer from the VA about whether the agency recognizes other claims stemming from the attack.

“It is not just my claim I am furious about,” he said. “It is the fine people of Pennsylvania that I lose sleep over not knowing if they were turned away as far back as 1991 to present time, when they are rightfully entitled to be taken care of by the VA.”

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