The Veterans Affairs Department on Thursday publicly stated its opposition to legislation that would allow the secretary to recoup relocation expenses from employees.
“VA agrees federal employees should be held accountable and supports actions taken to collect debts when employees have been paid incorrectly, and [VA] has established a strong internal policy implementing the Federal Claims Collection Act,” said Curtis Coy, deputy undersecretary for economic opportunity at the Veterans Benefits Administration, during a Thursday hearing on H.R. 4138 and eight other separate bills related to veterans’ employment and education benefits.
But the VA’s support for more employee accountability tools from Congress doesn’t extend to H.R. 4138, which Coy on Thursday said the department opposed.
The VA has been leery of the bill since House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., introduced it late last year.
The legislation would give the secretary broad authority to claw back all, or a portion of, moving costs paid to or on behalf of any department employee “when it’s warranted,” Miller said on Thursday. The bill would be retroactive, and would require the department to provide notice to employees of decisions to recoup relocation expenses. It would give employees the opportunity to appeal the recoupment to a third party before they would have to repay the money.
Miller’s bill was inspired by the VBA relocation benefits controversy involving Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves. VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson earlier this year demoted the two senior executives based on poor judgment and creating an appearance of impropriety by not recusing themselves from discussions over job reassignments that they both personally gained from. (Graves and Rubens appealed, and the Merit Systems Protection Board ultimately reinstated them to their jobs.)
As part of the controversial reassignments, VA paid roughly $274,000 in relocation expenses for Rubens, and about $129,000 for Graves, for a total of more than $400,000 – a sum that outraged lawmakers and many taxpayers. Most of those relocation expenses, however, were through the VA’s Appraised Value Offer program, which the department used as an incentive to attract highly-qualified candidates for hard-to-fill jobs. The governmentwide AVO program provides relocation services to employees to encourage them to move to locations that require specialized skills, allowing a government contractor to buy the employee’s home if it doesn’t sell in 60 days. VA has since indefinitely suspended its AVO program.
VA has said that it has the authority to recoup “improper payments,” but the payments to Rubens and Graves, which they were eligible for and which were authorized by their supervisor, were not improper, and so the department lacked the legal authority to recoup them.
Miller on Thursday said he wasn’t trying “to rehash the ultimate outcomes of the Rubens or Graves cases” but wanted to give the secretary clear authority to recoup relocation expenses under the current law and “erase this ambiguity.” He said he believed the department opposes the legislation because officials think it could hurt the department’s recruitment and retention efforts.
“It’s unfortunate, however, that while they continue to tout how they’re supportive of true cultural change and accountability in the department, when Congress acts to give them those tools and the ability to change the culture, they rebuff it, or say they already have the authority and it’s not necessary,” the Florida Republican said.
But even if Miller’s bill is enacted, it’s unclear whether it would accomplish what it’s aiming for -- namely, clarity. In an exchange that could only happen in Washington, the lawmaker leading the hearing tried a few times to elicit a concrete answer from the VA on whether H.R. 4138 would actually allow the secretary to recoup relocation expenses.
“I want the secretary to have the ability to recoup taxpayer dollars if the person used some nefarious behavior to get to where they got,” said Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, who is chairman of the House VA Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity. “So, whether the supervisor was duped into this situation, or whatever the case may be, if that person acted in a way that was not correct or nefarious in some way, will the secretary have the authority to take that back? Because that’s really what I am asking here.”
The response was far from clear. “I don’t think that this bill would make a difference,” said Carin Otero, associate deputy assistant secretary for human resources policy and planning in VA’s Office of Human Resources and Administration. “If there was nefarious behavior, I believe it would be uncovered in an investigation, in theory. If, in theory, there was nefarious behavior.”