Bill would let VA recoup improper relocation payouts

New legislation proposed by the chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee would allow VA officials to take back any employee relocation payments deemed improper or illegal.

The proposal would apply to past or future payouts and comes in direct response to a decision by VA leaders not to try to recover almost $400,000 in relocation expenses paid to a pair of department administrators who were later demoted and reassigned for abuse of power.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the committee chairman, has criticized VA for that inaction, and publicly supported firing the two employees instead of demoting them.

"If VA is ever going to reform itself into an organization worthy of the veterans it is charged with serving, it cannot tolerate corruption within its ranks," he said in a statement Tuesday. "Yet that's exactly what the department did."

Last month, VA officials removed two regional office directors — Diana Rubens in Philadelphia and Kimberly Graves in St. Paul, Minnesota — from their posts in response to an internal investigation that found they misused their authority to gain promotions and collect thousands of dollars in questionable moving expenses.

For Rubens, that totaled almost $275,000 for a move from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia, including losses related to the sale of her home. For Graves, it was nearly $130,000.

VA officials have suspended the home sale reimbursement program because of concerns, even though the payouts are still available to federal workers in other departments. But they told Miller in a letter last month that they do not plan to seek reimbursement for the disputed expenses, citing shaky legal ground.

Miller called that absurd.

"VA's handling of this matter is akin to letting bank robbers off the hook with a mere slap on the wrist while allowing them to keep the stolen money," he said. "If, as VA officials have claimed, the department truly lacks the legal authority to recoup the money Rubens and Graves benefited from as part of their scheme, we aim to fix that with this bill."

Miller's bill would allow the VA secretary to recoup any relocation expenses paid to any VA employee "if the secretary deems it necessary." Employees would be able to appeal the decision to a third-party federal arbiter.

Whether the measure can become law remains to be seen. Despite support among conservatives for similar employee punishment measures in recent years, Democratic lawmakers have been less enthusiastic, and union officials have railed against the proposals as giving management too much unchecked power.

Lawmakers passed related legislation in summer 2014 to make it easier for VA leaders to fire senior executives for mismanagement or malfeasance, but the move has not resulted in a significant jump in VA firing thus far. Supporters of that measure blame VA officials for ignoring the new dismissal tools.

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