Embattled St. Paul VA official takes the Fifth Amendment before a House panel

3 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

2 VA officials refuse to testify on job-manipulation claims.

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. Congressional lawmakers grilled senior VA officials — including the head of the Baltimore office — Monday night over allegations that two of the department’s leaders plotted to open up plum jobs and then take them for themselves.The recent House hearing on Veterans Affairs last night confirmed suspicions that Kim Graves, former head of East Coast Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), was ill-equipped. The officials, Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves, told a House committee they were asserting their Fifth Amendment rights under the Constitution to protect themselves against self-incrimination. 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.

Paul VA regional office director Kimberly Graves pleaded the Fifth and refused to answer any of the numerous questions put forward by HVAC chairman GOP Rep. Graves, who failed to appear voluntarily on Oct. 21, was subpoenaed by the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs to answer charges that she used her government job for personal gain.

The subpoena to appear — the first ever issued in the committee’s history — was deemed necessary because the VA did not allow the witnesses to show up to the first hearing on the subject. (RELATED: VA Officials Refuse To Appear Before Committee, Get Hit With Subpoena) “I want to make it clear that requiring these individuals or any individual to appear before us today is not done to embarrass them as some have asserted,” Miller said Wednesday at the hearing. “They are here before us today because they are the subjects of this damning report, which was completed at this committee’s request.” “This hearing is not a joke, and Ms. 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. Despite endless promises, the department refused to release testimony to the committee members in advance of the hearing, but on the day of the hearing, the department gave a two-sentence summary, leaving Miller furious and “sick and tired” of the department’s lack of cooperation. 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. To successfully take advantage of the program and receive extra money during a time of salary caps in the department, the two officials pushed subordinates out from their positions and subsequently applied for those newly open positions, so that they could then receive generous expense accounts during the move, in addition to bonus incentive funds. 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. The process often was handled improperly, the investigators concluded, and was used as a way to financially reward top officials when pay rates were frozen. While his soul may torch in hell for being less than straight with Congress at the expense of veterans, I am sure he reserved a seat at the country club of his choice alongside other Federal employees.

Aside from Mac’s totally disappointing testimony, Antoine Waller gave relatively straight answers about how he was manipulated and forced to take a demotion to the Baltimore RO position. 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. “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. Danny Pummill, Principal Under Secretary for Benefits, in an honest moment, admitted that Graves took her position because she was ill equipped to handle problems on the East Coast. Walcoff and Graves were linked to cronyism in 2007 when reports surfaced that the duo collectively benefited from bonus schemes where they presided on the committees responsible for allocated the bonuses they received.

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