VA official admits agency has ‘accountability problem’

The Department of Veterans Affairs has an “accountability problem” and is working to solve it in the eyes of lawmakers, taxpayers and the veterans it serves.

Danny Pummill, principal deputy under secretary for benefits at the VA’s Veterans Benefits Administration, told the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Monday night that the agency could not expect some of its past actions to be ignored — among them what a VA Office of Inspector General report found amounted to senior officials using their authority for personal and financial gain.

“We pay out a lot of money. I understand you can’t pay out that kind of money and not be held unaccountable,” Pummill said during a marathon committee hearing Nov. 2. “We have to be responsible for what we do in our jobs. The [deputy secretary] believes that we have to hold people accountable. If we don’t hold them accountable we can’t make a culture change.”

‘Never done before’

That culture, according to committee chairman Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), promotes an environment where at least two executives “inappropriately used their positions of authority to put their own personal and financial benefit ahead of veterans, taxpayers and their subordinates.”

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“My suspicion is that this kind of behavior is rampant not only throughout the Department of Veterans Affairs, but also the rest of the federal government,” Miller said. “VA must take aggressive steps to root it out, to hold employees accountable when warranted and be better stewards of taxpayer dollars. As I’ve said before, if VA put half the effort in to pushing for true accountability or protecting their employees that come forward as whistleblowers as they have for the individuals investigated in this IG report, then I honestly think the department would be a much better place. VA exists for veterans, not for itself or the unjust enrichment of its senior employees.”

The individuals Miller referred to are Diana Rubens, director of the VBA Philadelphia and Wilmington regional offices, and Kimberly Graves, director of VBA’s St. Paul regional office. The women were named in an IG report issued Sept. 28, regarding an alleged relocation scandal that resulted in the government paying roughly $400,000 for them to relocate within the department.

The IG report stated that Rubens and Graves inappropriately coerced two other directors to leave their positions when they were not interested in leaving, so their vacancies would be created for Rubens and Graves.

Those two employees were Robert McKenrick, currently the director of the VBA Los Angeles regional office, and Antione Waller, the current director of the Baltimore VBA regional office.

The four employees, as well as Pummill, were issued subpoenas by the committee last month. VA Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey, who stepped down in mid-October, was invited to testify at the Nov. 3 hearing as a private citizen, Miller said, but she did not respond to the request. The committee’s unanimous decision to issue the subpoenas was “something we have never done before,” Miller said.

Despite multiple questions from Miller, Rubens and Graves deferred from answering under their Fifth Amendment rights.

Not paying attention

In his testimony, Pummill told the committee that proposed disciplinary actions had been delivered to Graves and Rubens on Oct. 31. He could not elaborate on what those actions were because the women are within a roughly two-week time frame for appeal. Once that time has passed, those proposed punishments will be released, he said.

The VA IG recommended criminal investigations for both women.

Aside from the disciplinary actions, the VA also froze the appraised value offer (AVO) program, Pummill said, and a task force is looking at “all the incentives and moves inside of not just the VBA but the VA.”

According to the IG report, the VA paid for the sale of Rubens’ house through the AVO program. The policy is meant to help relocating employees sell their homes quickly. It works by having two separate appraisals of the house to determine its price. If the house is not sold within 60 days, the General Services Administration contracts a company to buy the house. The employee’s agency then pays the contractor an acquisition fee. That fee was 27.5 percent of the house’s value in fiscal 2014.

“I think that when we were using the AVO program, that we weren’t paying attention to everything we should be paying attention,” Pummill said. “We weren’t looking at all the procedures and policies that were in place. I think we leaned heavy toward it being so important to get the right person at the right place at the right time to take care of our veterans, we weren’t looking at second or third order effects like we were supposed to. We need to do a better job of that. ”

Feeling pressure

McKenrick, who was working for VA in Philadelphia, said that while he was initially interested in the California opportunity — and according to the IG report one of the people chosen to serve on a panel to help fill the position — after learning more about the job he decided that the only way he would go would be via a direct reassignment.

“I did have reservations, yes, but when the decision was made and I was direct reassigned, I’m all in,” McKenrick said. “That’s a mission you receive, you soldier up and you march on.”

McKenrick said he “did not feel like [he] was pressured” that he would be removed if he did not relocate, though he admitted that prior experience in another federal agency showed him that could happen.

Waller, however, said he did feel pressure to move from his VA post in St. Paul, Minnesota to a position in Baltimore.

“My ultimate decision to go to Baltimore came with pressure to accept the assignment,” Waller said. “I did in fact accept that assignment, I went in to that opportunity with all the passion that I could to lead and continue to lead the regional office.”

But when asked by a committee member whether he felt anybody in VA misused their position, he said “I can’t answer that congressman.”