Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., introduced the bill to give VA another tool for punishing misbehaving employees.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., introduced the bill to give VA another tool for punishing misbehaving employees. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Bill Would Allow VA To Recoup Relocation Benefits

Under the legislation, the secretary could demand repayment from any employee for moving expenses paid by government.

A new House bill would allow the Veterans Affairs secretary to recoup relocation expenses from employees.

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. The bill would be retroactive, meaning it could apply to relocation expenses paid to department employees before the legislation took effect, if it is enacted into law. That means it would apply to Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves, the two VA senior executives who were demoted and reassigned because they used their positions of authority for personal and financial gain. VA paid roughly $274,000 in relocation expenses for Rubens, and about $129,000 for Graves, for a total of more than $400,000.

House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., introduced the bill on Tuesday, in response to the VA’s decision to demote and reassign, rather than fire, Rubens and Graves. Miller sent a Nov. 23 letter to VA Secretary Bob McDonald asking about recouping the two senior executives’ relocation expenses. “Your staff informed mine that VA’s Office of General Counsel determined VA could not pursue the recoupment due to a lack of legal authority,” Miller wrote. “How can it be that the law prohibits recouping benefits paid to, or on behalf of, employees who received those benefits because they abused their positions of authority?” Miller said the VA’s position “defies common sense.”

The department’s watchdog in September concluded that Rubens, who was director of VBA’s Philadelphia regional office, and Graves, who led VBA’s St. Paul regional office, improperly helped create vacancies at their respective offices and volunteered to fill them. The two employees occupying those jobs at the time -- Antione Waller and Robert McKenrick – were relocated to jobs (in Baltimore and Los Angeles, respectively) they did not volunteer for to make room for Rubens and Graves, who were working elsewhere at the time, according to the watchdog.

In his letter to McDonald, Miller said the department makes more of an effort to claw back improper benefits to vets than to recapture benefits from employees engaged in misconduct. “VA aggressively pursues the recoupment of overpayment of benefits made to veterans, survivors, and other beneficiaries even when the overpayments are due to VA’s own error,” Miller wrote. “I am sure you appreciate the lunacy of a policy that is stricter on veteran beneficiaries of earned benefits as compared to corrupt government employees who unjustly enrich themselves at taxpayer expense.”

Miller’s bill (H.R. 4138) would require the department to provide notice to employees of decisions to recoup relocation expenses, and would give employees the opportunity to appeal the recoupment to a third-party before they would have to repay the money.

H.R. 4138 would apply to all VA employees—not just senior executives.

The legislation is the latest attempt by lawmakers to stop what many view as a personnel system that too often rewards instead of punishes federal employees who are poor performers or engaged in misconduct. A 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.”

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.