Jacob Lund / Shutterstock.com

Judge Says Fired VA Senior Executive Can Keep Her Bonus

The department failed to prove that Sharon Helman’s performance award was an administrative error.

The former senior executive at the center of the Veterans Affairs Department scandal over patient wait times can keep her bonus, a judge has ruled.

The VA cannot recoup the $9,080 it gave Sharon Helman as a result of her fiscal 2013 performance review because the department failed to prove it made “an administrative error” when it awarded Helman the money, said Judge Alan R. Caramella, in his final ruling on the matter. Caramella said the VA did not provide critical documents related to its argument that then-Secretary Eric Shinseki had intended to defer Helman’s award, but that it was erroneously processed because of a clerical screw-up. When the wait times scandal erupted in the spring of 2014, Shinseki rescinded the performance award given to Helman for her work in fiscal 2013.

“Because the VA has not proved that it made an administrative error, it has not proved that the performance rating it issued in February 2014 was not a final rating,” Caramella wrote. “And as the VA concedes, unless it can prove that the February 2014 rating was not final, it did not have the authority to rescind the rating.”

In February 2015, Caramella directed VA to repay Helman $5,624.80 by March 10, the amount the department withheld from her pay to recoup the bonus over last summer and fall. The remaining $3,455.80 represents taxes and deductions the VA took out on Helman’s behalf, which she is not eligible to recoup.

Helman, the former career senior executive who ran VA’s Phoenix health care system when the scandal over falsifying wait lists erupted in spring 2014, was fired in November 2014, and then appealed her case to the Merit Systems Protection Board. Chief Administrative Judge Stephen C. Mish in December upheld Helman’s firing because she improperly accepted more than $13,000 in gifts from a lobbyist and failed to report them, not because she engaged in misconduct related to manipulating data to conceal excessive wait times for vets seeking health care. Helman earned an annual salary of $169,000 while she was director of the VA Phoenix health care system.

House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., called the VA’s approach to awarding bonuses “a prime example” of the department’s “blatant ineptitude and fiscal irresponsibility.”

Miller sponsored a bill, which the House passed in March, that would give the VA secretary clear authority to order employees to repay bonuses. The idea behind the measure is to give the VA chief another tool to punish those engaged in misconduct – in this instance by allowing the department to revoke bonuses those employees have received. But the legislation does not specify criteria that would be grounds for ordering a repayment, giving the secretary broad discretion. The bill also is aimed at clearing up any confusion over whether VA has the authority to claw back bonuses. VA has no position on the legislation.

“While touting its bonus program as a way to attract and retain the best and brightest, VA continually pays thousands in taxpayer-funded bonuses to employees with proven records of incompetence and corruption year after year,” Miller said.

Nov. 11 USA Today report found that the VA paid out more than $142 million in performance-based bonuses in 2014 to senior executives and other employees despite the department’s wide-ranging management problems. “Among the recipients were claims processors in a Philadelphia benefits office that investigators dubbed the worst in the country last year,” the report said. “They received $300 to $900 each. Managers in Tomah, Wis., got $1,000 to $4,000, even though they oversaw the over-prescription of opiates to veterans – one of whom died.”

In fiscal 2014, the average performance award for VA senior executives was $9,450 – less than the governmentwide average of $10,560, according to data from the Office of Personnel Management. The department paid bonuses to 36 percent of its career senior executives in fiscal 2014, a decline from fiscal 2013, when 64 percent of senior execs received performance awards.

(Image via  / Shutterstock.com)