The VA botched a chance to clean up its act when it demoted two senior executives but didn’t fire them nor try to recover nearly $400,000 in relocation bonuses investigators say they didn’t deserve because they orchestrated sweetheart transfers to new posts, a top House lawmaker said Tuesday.
The Veterans Affairs Department did demote Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves for their behavior, but says it cannot do anything more to them.
House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller said for a department still struggling to regain Americans’ trust after last year’s waiting list scandal, the VA should have done more. He fired off a stern letter Tuesday morning to VA Secretary Robert McDonald demanding to know why the department stopped short.
“Your staff informed mine that VA’s Office of General Counsel determined VA could not pursue the recoupment due to a lack of legal authority,” wrote Mr. Miller, Florida Republican. “How can it be that the law prohibits recouping benefits paid to, or on behalf of, employees who only received those benefits because they abused their positions of authority?”
“Clearly the IG thought there was some basis for VA to take action or else it would not have made the recommendations it did in the first place,” he wrote. “To put it mildly, VA’s decision defies common sense.”
The department’s inspector general concluded the two employees gamed the system for their own gain, arranging their own transfers and then collecting relocation bonuses even though under VA policies neither should have been paid the extra money. The inspector general made criminal referrals to the Justice Department.
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The VA had no comment on whether they would be moving to recoup the improperly paid out benefits.
The program allowing for employees to get relocation benefits has since been indefinitely suspended, VA officials testified to Congress this month.
Ms. Rubens became the director of the Philadelphia regional office and Ms. Graves became director of the St. Paul, Minnesota, regional office as a result of their post manipulation, but will now be moved to other offices with a decrease in pay, the VA said.
Ms. Graves will now serve as the assistant director of the Phoenix, Arizona, regional benefits office and Ms. Rubens will serve as the assistant director of the Houston regional benefits office. Cheryl Rawls has been named to replace Ms. Rubens as the director of the Philadelphia office, and Kay Anderson, the current assistant director at the St. Paul office, will be bumped up to director.
Subpoenaed to testify to Mr. Miller’s committee, Ms. Rubens and Ms. Graves both asserted their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination in refusing to answer questions.
Anger at the two employees’ behavior, and the VA’s treatment of them, crossed party lines on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Tom Carper, Delaware Democrat, released a letter Monday written to Mr. McDonald, citing serious concerns with the VA’s “troubling” employment practices and a lack of safeguards to prevent employees from gaming the system.
“The OIG’s allegations that these two VA officials appear to have orchestrated transfers as a means to bill the federal government hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars — if true — is deeply troubling,” he wrote.
Meanwhile Mr. Miller said in a statement Friday that it was “insult to taxpayers’ injury” that Ms. Graves earned a performance bonus of $8,000 this year and would not have to return it.
Pete Hegseth, CEO of veterans group Concerned Veterans of America, said the lack of stiff punishment was a sign of “institutional rot.”
“Secretary [Bob] McDonald bears responsibility not only for the culture in which this corruption was allowed to fester, but also for the failure to hold those involved accountable for this shameful abuse of veterans,” Mr. Hegseth said. “If he will not fire employees who knowingly violate federal rules, misuse tax dollars and show the utmost contempt for veterans and their needs, he should follow Ms. Rubens and Ms. Graves out the door.”
The American Legion also bashed the VA for not holding employees properly accountable for their actions.
“This is an insult and disgrace to all veterans,” Dale Barnett, national commander of the American Legion, said. “Any promises that VA officials make about accountability in the future need to be taken with a grain of salt.”
The VA has long been plagued by scandal, most notably the scandal last year that patients at a Phoenix VA hospital were dying while languishing on a secret waiting list that employees manipulated to make wait times seem shorter than they were, as clinic officials collected bonuses for making scheduling targets. Former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned following the revelation, and lawmakers say that reform is taking too long.
“Until VA leaders make a commitment to supporting real accountability — something they have refused to do thus far — efforts to reform VA are doomed to fail,” Mr. Miller said.