A Veterans Affairs Department senior executive who received more than $300,000 in relocation expenses from the federal government told a House panel on Wednesday that she “didn’t know” whether she would have moved without the incentive.
An already charged hearing over problems with data manipulation, mail mismanagement and egregious processing delays of veterans’ claims at VA facilities in Philadelphia, Pa., and Oakland, Calif., was punctuated by a tense exchange between House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and Diana Rubens, director of VA’s Philadelphia Regional Office. VA paid nearly $310,000 to move Rubens from Washington to Philadelphia last year, including $211,750 to a contractor through the Appraised Value Offer program, and $84,643.70 to Rubens directly for expenses including storage of her household goods, subsistence, and shipment of personal items.
Rubens took over the Philadelphia Regional Office, which administers nearly $4.1 billion in benefits and services and has a staff of more than 950 employees, in July 2014, in the middle of the firestorm over data manipulation and delays in scheduling medical appointments for vets at the Phoenix, Ariz., facility. Those problems cost former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki his job, and sparked a management overhaul by his successor, Bob McDonald.
From 2008 to 2014, Rubens served as deputy undersecretary for field operations in Washington.
Rubens signed a VA statement that informed the department she would not take the job in Philadelphia without the relocation incentive. Miller grilled her over whether she lobbied for the Philadelphia job so that she could be closer to her family, who live in her hometown of Wilmington, Del.
“You had to get this relocation [incentive] to be close to your family? So you would not have moved close to your mother, if you did not have this relocation package?” Miller asked.
“Sir, I don’t know that,” Rubens said, after a few seconds of uncomfortable silence.
Rubens said she wanted the Philadelphia job because she was interested in running a “large and complex office, and Philadelphia fit the bill.” Rubens, who was recommended for the reassignment and the relocation incentive by VA Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey, said she “opted to avail myself of a program to make sure that I could make that move as expeditiously as possible.”
The Office of Personnel Management offers recruitment, retention and relocation incentives to employees for hard-to-fill jobs. Employees can only receive a relocation incentive when their performance rating is at least or equivalent to “fully successful.” VA’s Appraised Value Offer program provides relocation services to employees to encourage them to move to locations that require specialized skills. The program allows a government contractor to buy the employee’s home, if it doesn’t sell in 60 days.
“The difference in housing markets across the country causes this cost to vary greatly from situation to situation,” Hickey wrote in an April 20 letter to Miller responding to questions about the expenses the department paid on behalf of Rubens. Rubens, who has worked at VA for nearly 28 years and started out as a claims examiner, has “a proven record as a successful leader at various levels of the organization,” Hickey said in the letter.
“While such an expenditure may have been totally legal, it does not pass the smell test,” Miller said in his opening statement on Wednesday. “Paying such an exorbitant amount on behalf of a federal employee to move three hours down the road is an outrageous abuse of taxpayer funds in this fiscal climate, or any fiscal climate for that matter.”
Wednesday’s hearing featured disturbing stories from whistleblowers at VA’s Philadelphia facility and the regional office in Oakland, ranging from abusive work environments to some employees’ constant fears of being fired for not processing claims fast enough.
Rustyann Brown, a whistleblower and retired federal employee who worked at the Oakland regional office for five years, said veterans’ claims were left to collect dust for decades, many of them deemed “no action necessary.” Brown told the story of a vet’s widow writing to the department about her deceased husband’s benefits: “She was dead six years by the time we got to that letter.”
VA’s inspector general substantiated several allegations during its investigation of the Philadelphia and Oakland facilities. Among the problems in Philadelphia: mail mismanagement, data manipulation, $2.2 million in duplicate payments to veterans, and alleged bullying and retaliation against employees. The facility did not provide responses to more than 31,000 inquiries from vets; the requests had been pending for an average of 312 days. VBA’s policy is that 90 percent of inquiries should receive a response within five business days. In Oakland, the IG found that the staff had not processed thousands of informal requests for benefits dating back years, and had improperly stored formal claims.
“Philadelphia is clearly the most troubled VARO,” said Linda Halliday, assistant IG for audits and evaluations at VA, on Wednesday.
Hickey held a conference call with reporters on Monday saying that the department had completed “many” of the IG’s recommendations to clean up the situation in Philadelphia. No one has been fired over the mismanagement yet, but Hickey said the results of an internal investigation over accountability will be completed in June. At that time, the undersecretary said she would not be afraid to take appropriate measures to hold people accountable if necessary.
As for Rubens and her relocation reimbursement, “many employees feel this is just another example of the perception that she is above the law and afforded special treatment by senior VACO management,” said Joseph Malizia, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 940, during the hearing. Malizia is a 37-year VA employee. VACO stands for Veterans Affairs Central Office, also known as department headquarters in Washington.
Danny Pummill, principal deputy undersecretary for benefits at VA, defended Rubens on Wednesday, testifying that “she is committed to fostering an environment and culture where employees feel safe to raise issues” and is “enhancing relationships with stakeholders.”