VA directors plead Fifth at House committee hearing, face punishment

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Witnesses are sworn in at the start of a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on alleged misuse of the VA relocation program, Nov. 2, 2015, on Capitol Hill. (Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes)
From Stripes.com
Witnesses are sworn in at the start of a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on alleged misuse of the VA relocation program, Nov. 2, 2015, on Capitol Hill. (Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes)

VA directors plead Fifth at House committee hearing, face punishment

by: Heath Druzin | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: November 03, 2015

WASHINGTON — It took nearly two weeks to get a pair of controversial Department Veterans Affairs officials to Capitol Hill for questioning, but it was the congressmen in the committee room who did most of the talking Monday.

“Upon advice of counsel, I respectfully exercise my Fifth Amendment right and decline to answer that question,” Philadelphia VA Regional Office Director Diana Rubens said repeatedly under tough questioning from House Committee on Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla.

Miller’s flair for the dramatic was evident in the placement for witnesses: Rubens and St. Paul VA Regional Director Kimberly Graves, both accused by the VA Office of Inspector General of serious malfeasance, were seated next to the regional directors they are said to have pushed out of their jobs for financial gain. The actions spurred a criminal complaint the IG referred to the Department of Justice, and the VA has recommended both directors be punished.

Rubens and Graves sat grimly through the questioning and the testimony of LA VA Regional Director Robert McKenrick and Baltimore VA Regional Director Antione Waller, who said they had been pressured into leaving the posts that Rubens and Graves filled.

“If VA put half of the effort into pushing for true accountability or protecting their employees who come forth as whistleblowers as they have for the individuals investigated in this IG report, then I honestly think the department would be in a much better place,” Miller said. “VA exists for veterans, not for itself or the unjust enrichment of its senior employees.”

While Rubens and Graves — who also invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination — said little, Principal Deputy Under Secretary for Benefits Danny Pummill said the two will face punishment, though he said the decisions are under appeal and VA will not release details until the end of the week.

It’s the latest black eye for the VA, which has been under fire since a scandal in veterans health care broke more than a year and a half ago with revelations of patients dying while lingering on secret wait lists at the Phoenix VA Medical Center. The scandal cost former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki his job, but many lawmakers have grown impatient with what they see as a slow pace of departmental reforms.

Rubens, Graves and three other employees appeared before the committee after the VA refused to make staff available for a hearing on Oct. 21. VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson wrote in a letter to Miller that making the employees appear could endanger their right against self-incrimination and hamper ongoing criminal investigations.

That led the committee to vote to issue subpoenas, compelling the employees to appear or be held in contempt and face possible incarceration. It also recently subpoenaed VA documents.

The VA IG investigation found that Rubens and Graves gamed the department’s hiring system to create vacancies in locations to which they wanted to move in jobs with fewer responsibilities while maintaining their salaries.

“I do believe I was pressured,” McKenrick said in response to a question from Miller on the circumstances surrounding his reassignment to LA.

Between them, Rubens and Graves also received roughly $400,000 in moving expense reimbursement as part of a VA program to entice candidates into hard-to-fill jobs, despite apparently seeking the positions. That bill earned the ire of lawmakers and rank-and-file VA employees alike, and the VA suspended the program in the face of the report.

Former VA Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey, who was in charge of 20,000 employees, was also implicated in the scheme and originally subpoenaed but resigned under pressure before the hearing. The committee then withdrew her subpoena.

Despite the accusations against them, Rubens and Graves are all still on the job. In a lengthy email obtained by Stripes, dated Wednesday, Rubens highlights what she says are improvements in customer service at the Philadelphia and Wilmington (Del.) Regional Office.

“I can’t say that I think we are ready to rest on our laurels,” she wrote. “… we will continue to look for ways to improve performance for our Veterans, family members and survivors, but we will also continue working to make the Philadelphia and Wilmington Regional Offices places we can all be proud to come to.”

Kristen Ruell, a Philadelphia VA Regional Office employee who has testified about malfeasance at the office, said having Rubens continue in her job is hurting morale for rank-and-file workers.

“People are depressed because employees have been fired for less and they don’t understand how she’s still making decisions,” she said in phone interview with Stars and Stripes.

Stars and Stripes staffer Catherine Giordano contributed to this report

druzin.heath@stripes.com
Twitter: @Druzin_Stripes