Senior members of Congress are investigating the case of two Veterans Affairs executives who abused their positions to get plum jobs and perks, part of a pattern of unjustified moving incentives and transfers identified by the agency’s watchdog.
The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee has scheduled a hearing on the alleged abuses next Wednesday. And on Tuesday, the chairman, ranking member and two others on the Senate Committee that oversees the Department of Veterans Affairs called on Secretary Robert McDonald to hold the benefits executives accountable for what the lawmakers called a “shockingly unethical misuse of funds.”
“Our committee confirmed your nomination to fundamentally overhaul and reform this struggling agency,” the senators wrote in a letter released Tuesday, signed by Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), top Democrat Sen. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) and Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.).
“But, unfortunately, it is clear … that your well-intentioned and meaningful efforts to change the culture of VA have not yet taken hold.”
The senators asked McDonald to document “any actions you are taking” to stop the practice of “inappropriate” job relocations and provide them with a plan to reform the approval and reimbursement process for relocations — in particular, a program where the government buys employees’ homes.
They also demanded documentation of any federal personnel requirements that prohibit agencies from lowering the salaries of senior executives who are transferred to new jobs that carry less responsibility.
Deputy Inspector General Linda Halliday reported in September that two senior executives gamed VA’s moving-expense system for a total of $400,000 in what she described as questionable reimbursements, with taxpayers paying $300,000 for one of them to relocate 140 miles, from D.C. to Philadelphia.
Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves “inappropriately used their positions of authority for personal and financial benefit when they participated personally and substantially in creating opportunities for their own transfers to positions they were interested in filling,” investigators found.
Rubens and Graves kept their salaries of $181,497 and $173,949, respectively, even though the new positions they took as directors of the Philadelphia and St. Paul, Minn., regional offices had less responsibility, overseeing a fraction of the employees at lower pay levels. Rubens had been deputy undersecretary for field operations.
Between salary increases and relocation expenses, the Veterans Benefits Administration, where they worked, spent $1.8 million to reassign 23 senior executives from fiscal 2013 to fiscal 2015, investigators found. In all but two cases, the new jobs came with pay raises, despite a White House-imposed freeze on senior executives’ pay — and a widely publicized ban on bonuses stemming from a backlog of outstanding claims for disability benefits.
VA officials said in response that it is conducting a 30-day review of all incentive and relocation procedures. It is unclear if Rubens and Graves have faced disciplinary action.