In yet another tense House hearing Wednesday, lawmakers accused Veterans Affairs officials of hiding from Congress and wishing away potential criminal abuse cases to avoid confronting the latest management scandal to hit the embattled department.
Republicans and Democrats on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee voted unanimously to force five VA employees, including the department's new acting undersecretary for benefits, to testify about the now-defunct relocation bonus program at an unusual evening hearing next month.
"This is not a partisan witch hunt," said committee chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla. "We're not trying to impair any potential criminal investigations.
"But there is ample evidence that VA does not act quickly enough on accountability … and we will not aid VA in its 'business as usual' routine."
No VA officials were present at the hearing. Wednesday's action was the fourth time in the past 18 months the committee has subpoenaed witnesses or information from the department, a sign of the increasingly adversarial relationship between the legislative branch and executive agency.
In a letter to the committee before the hearing, VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson had offered to testify on fixes made in the wake of the latest revelations, but also warned that forcing any department employees to testify about the program could jeopardize ongoing investigations.
At issue are allegations from the VA inspector general's office that senior executives misused interoffice moves to bump up their pay while reducing their job responsibilities, at a significant cost to taxpayers. The Veterans Benefits Administration spent more than $1.5 million on 21 questionable senior executive reassignments over the past three fiscal years.
The IG report cites two cases specifically. Philadelphia VA Regional Office Director Diana Rubens stands accused of getting more than $288,000 in moving expenses compensation to switch from a job in nearby Washington, D.C., and St. Paul, Minnesota, VA Regional Office Director Kimberly Graves received nearly $130,000 in a similar job switch scheme.
Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., called the scandal "a poster child (for) loss of faith in government," especially as veterans question continued problems with medical wait times and sometimes lengthy benefits processing delays.
VA leaders canceled the relocation bonuses program in recent days, after the report was released and the hearing was scheduled.
Graves and Rubens are among those subpoenaed for the November hearing. The committee also invited to the event former Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey, who resigned last week and was cited for potential management negligence in the IG report.
Miller and other Republicans on the committee had called for Hickey's resignation for a host of department complaints, and have also called publicly for punishment for Graves and Rubens.
Gibson said those comments endanger any corrective or punitive actions the department may take as its investigation continues. Miller said the committee isn't waiting "for one year or two or three" for the department's internal reviews to wrap up.
Justice Department officials have not said if any criminal charges are imminent in connection to the report allegations.
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.