This story has been updated.
The Veterans Affairs Department has suspended two senior leaders in its Philadelphia regional office, but not for misconduct related to serving veterans.
On Monday, effective immediately, VA “temporarily relieved” Lucy Filipov, assistant director of the Philadelphia regional office, and Gary Hodge, head of the Pension Management Center, of their duties “while the department further investigates the allegations [against them] and determines what, if any, administrative action is appropriate,” according to a statement. It’s not clear exactly what “temporarily relieved” means here. Under federal personnel regulations, the department could have suspended Filipov and Hodge for 14 days or less, indefinitely suspended them (more than 14 days), or put them on paid administrative leave.
A May 28 inspector general report concluded that Filipov misused her position when she held a June 2014 party for subordinates at her home and encouraged them to pay another employee’s wife $35 each to summon the dead. At the time, Filipov was acting director of the Philadelphia regional office. According to the IG report, Filipov organized the supernatural soiree, using her official VA email to plan it and to recruit guests, some of whom were her subordinates. The medium was Loretta Hodge, wife of Gary Hodge. Filipov and Gary Hodge are both GS-15s; those who attended the party ranged from GS-9 to GS-14.
Ethics standards and federal regulations prohibit federal employees from using their position for private gain, or the gain of friends and relatives. Government ethics also instruct federal employees to make an honest effort to avoid situations that would give the appearance of a conflict of interest.
In the same report, the watchdog also found that Gary Hodge had failed to report his wife’s income as a medium on his government ethics forms. The couple also didn’t report her earnings for 2012 and 2013 to the Internal Revenue Service. Hodge’s wife, who is self-employed, earned $13,955 in 2014, $12,850 in 2013, and $6,960 in 2012. A website the IG found stated that Loretta Hodge has worked as a medium since 2006; she calls herself the “Angel Whisperer” on her LinkedIn profile. Loretta Hodge’s business also was not registered with the city of Philadelphia, the IG found.
The IG referred Hodge’s tax issue to the IRS and the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue, as well as making a criminal referral to the Justice Department for making false statements on his financial disclosure forms. Justice declined to pursue it in favor of any administrative action. The watchdog also recommended refresher ethics training for both Hodge and Filipov, as well as appropriate administrative action.
Willie Clark, Eastern Area director of the Veterans Benefits Administration, told the IG that after conferring with the Office of General Counsel and human resources, he will “take the appropriate administrative and/or disciplinary action, if any, against one or both individuals.” Clark said Filipov and Hodge will receive additional ethics training and Hodge will correct his financial disclosure reports. “Lastly, I also told both individuals this type [of] activity will not be condoned or tolerated in this agency,” Clark said.
The department in its statement said it “takes seriously” the allegations in the IG report.
The Philadelphia regional office has been under fire for data manipulation, mail mismanagement, egregious claims processing delays, and a hostile work environment for employees. The lapses in judgment and ethics outlined in the IG report related to Filipov and Hodge are not related to those serious allegations. To date, the VA has not fired or suspended any top officials at the Philadelphia facility for misconduct related to those specific allegations concerning veterans’ services or benefits. A separate IG audit released in April looked into some of those allegations. Hodge had been temporarily reassigned from Philadelphia to Washington.
Since the story over falsifying wait lists in VA’s Phoenix facility erupted in the spring of 2014, lawmakers and veteran advocates have been pressuring the department to get rid of employees engaged in misconduct, or who are performing poorly. The 2014 Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, which became law last year, makes it easier to get rid of senior executives at the department engaged in wrongdoing. But lawmakers have blasted the department for not firing any employees yet for the specific problems that erupted at the Phoenix, Ariz., facility.
Secretary Bob McDonald and Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson have publicly and privately discussed the difficulty of firing employees while also complying with due process, and making sure the agency’s decision to fire someone isn’t overturned on appeal. Other agency leaders, including the director of the Secret Service and the former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration have expressed similar sentiments.
A new bill, which a House Veterans’ Affairs subcommittee discussed at a hearing Tuesday afternoon, would allow the VA secretary to remove any VA employee based on performance or misconduct; the employee could file an appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board within seven days of his or her removal. MSPB would have to rule within 45 days of the appeal filing. That legislation also would extend the probationary period for new VA employees from one year to 18 months, and allow the secretary to extend that even further.
Correction: The original version of this story said the House Veterans' Affairs Committee was set to vote Tuesday afternoon on the bill making it easier for the VA secretary to remove any VA employee based on performance or misconduct. The panel's Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity held a hearing on the bill, but did not vote on it.
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