The Department of Veterans Affairs has suspended a relocation program used by two senior executives to obtain more than $400,000 in questionable moving expenses and moved to discipline the officials, a senior agency leader said Monday.
Danny Pummill, acting undersecretary for benefits, told lawmakers on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee that VA is “doing a re-look at moving programs throughout the agency” and reconsidering how it promotes and transfers senior executives, “so everything is being done for the right reasons.”
“We weren’t paying attention to everything we should have been paying attention to,” Pummill said. “We need to do a better job of that.”
Congress is investigating the executives for allegedly abusing their positions to get plum jobs and perks, part of a pattern of unjustified moving incentives and transfers identified by VA’s watchdog. The committee subpoenaed Pummill, the executives and the two lower-ranking regional benefits managers they forced to accept job transfers against their will, according to investigators.
But the executives, Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves, refused to testify, telling the committee they were asserting their Fifth Amendment rights under the Constitution to protect themselves against self-incrimination.
Rubens, director of the Philadelphia regional office for the Veterans Benefits Administration, and Graves, director of the St. Paul, Minn., regional office for the VBA, face possible criminal prosecution.
Pummill said their punishment for administrative misconduct will be one of the first cases handled under a new law that speeds up dismissals and other discipline against VA senior executives, who now have far fewer appeal rights than they once did.
Pummill replaced Allison Hickey, who was forced to resign after the report by the inspector general’s office recommended VA take administrative action against her for poor oversight of the relocation program.
He declined to say what action the agency is taking against Rubens and Graves, who kept their salaries of $181,497 and $173,949, respectively, even though the new positions they took had less responsibility, overseeing a fraction of the employees at lower pay levels.
Between salary increases and relocation expenses, the VBA 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 exists for veterans, not for itself or the unjust enrichment of its senior employees,” the committee’s chairman, Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), said of the scheme.
Acting inspector general Linda Halliday disclosed in September that Rubens and Graves “inappropriately used their positions of authority for personal and financial benefit” when they forced lower-ranking officials to transfer out of their positions and then filled the vacancies themselves.
Pummill said the agency has suspended its relocation program pending a review of how effectively it’s being monitored. The program, run by the General Services Administration, pays private contractors a 27 percent fee to sell homes of senior executives who switch jobs. But it is supposed to be used only rarely for hard-to-fill jobs; Rubens and Graves sought out their new assignments.
Linda Halliday told the committee that while VA should make multiple changes to its transfer and relocation programs for senior executives, the most critical change will be ensuring that those who abused the program are punished.
“What about the culture change?” Rep. Dan Benishek (R-Mich.) asked Pummell.
His response was candid.
“It’s devastating that the senior leaders are not held as accountable as the lowest people in the organization,” he said, acknowledging VA’s persistent problems with morale. He said Sloan Gibson, the agency’s second in command, “understands that we have an accountability problem.”
“We pay out of a lot of money,” Pummill said. “We have to be accountable to the Congress of the United States.”