Senior executives with the Department of Veterans Affairs Department executives misused inter-office moves to bump up their pay while reducing their job responsibilities, including one case in which a senior official received almost $300,000 in questionable reimbursements, investigators said in a new report released Monday. Lawmakers called the findings further proof "that VA’s corrosive culture extends to the highest levels" and called for firings of senior VA officials connected to the practice.
In a response to the VA Inspector General report, departmental officials agreed to more closely examine use of the moving expenses program for signs of abuse and launch a disciplinary review against a number of senior executives, including Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey, for improper involvement or negligence with the program.
According to the report, the Veterans Benefits Administration spent about $1.8 million on 23 senior executive reassignments over the last three fiscal years, all but two of which appear to have been used as "a means to justify annual salary increases" for some of the department's highest earners.
The investigation was launched last spring after reports surfaced that Philadelphia VA Regional Office Director Diana Rubens received more than $288,000 in moving expenses compensation to switch from a job in nearby Washington, D.C.
Investigators say Rubens manipulated the department's hiring system to create a job vacancy with fewer responsibilities and equal pay to game the moving expense reimbursements "for financial gain in an era of government pay freezes."
The IG report also found Kimberly Graves, a regional director based in Minnesota, received nearly $130,000 in a similar job-switch scheme. Investigators have forwarded details of their findings on both women to the U.S. Attorney's office for possible criminal penalties.
In other cases, senior executives used relocation incentives and moving expenses to get around moratoriums on pay raises, shifting between equal or lesser jobs and racking up questionable costs for the department.
"While we do not question the need to reassign some staff to manage a national network of (regional offices), we concluded that VBA inappropriately utilized VA's (relocation) program for the benefit of its SES workforce," the report said.
The report stops short of recommending any punishment for specific individuals, but does recommend that the VA General Counsel review whether administrative action is warranted against numerous individuals involved with the programs and whether any of the ill-gotten funds can be recouped.
In a statement, House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., called the findings unsettling.
"These VA managers knew what they were doing, and it is clear that from day one VA officials were using the relocation expenses program to enrich themselves," Miller said. "The actions of the individuals uncovered by this report are a discredit to VA employees and veterans."
He also called the report "simply the latest in a long line of investigations showing VA officials helping themselves instead of helping America's veterans" and called for punishment for all employees involved.
VA officials told investigators they would provide the results of their own internal reviews into the issues by the end of the year.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.