The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee (HVAC) held a hearing Wednesday to get to the bottom of an inspector general report which found that senior officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs engaged in a scheme to cash in on relocation bonuses at the expense of taxpayers.
The only problem is that every single VA official or employee named to appear skipped the meeting. Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey resigned ahead of the hearing to avoid coming before the committee.
In response, HVAC voted on a motion to issue a subpoena to compel five individuals to appear: Danny Pummill, principal deputy under secretary for benefits, Diana Rubens, director at the VBA Philadelphia and Wilmington Region Office, Kimberly Graves, director of the St. Paul VBA Regional Office, Robert McKenrick, director of the Los Angeles VBA Regional Office and Antione Waller, director of the Baltimore VBA Regional Office.
All present voted in support of the subpoena.
This is the first time the committee has ever issued a subpoena compelling individuals to appear and give testimony. The new hearing date is set for Nov. 2.
Senior officials skipping the meeting did not come as a complete surprise. GOP Rep. Jeff Miller , HVAC chairman, issued a statement ahead of the hearing saying that the resignation of Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey will not deter the committee from further investigating the issue of relocation bonuses.
“I will not allow bureaucratic foot dragging to interfere with Congress’ role in this process,” Miller said in advance of the hearing. “The employees referenced in this report – all of whom enjoy generous, taxpayer-funded salaries – owe the American people an explanation for their actions. That’s why, should they refuse to testify voluntarily, I am prepared to call for the committee to vote on subpoenas to compel their testimony.”
That’s exactly what happened.
All named officials played a central role in the inspector general report which discovered that two senior VA executives, Rubens and Graves, used their authority and close relationship with Hickey to force two employees to vacate their position. This left the positions open for Rubens and Graves to fill and subsequently collect generous relocation bonuses. Hickey said she would do anything she could to make the move for Rubens happen.
Rubens received $288,000 for the move. Up until the time the inspector general report came out, the VA fully supported the relocation move.
“If we do not aggressively shed light on issues we have uncovered, or the IG uncovers, or whistleblowers uncover, then the VA will just sweep them under the rug and wait for public attention to be focused elsewhere,” Miller said at the hearing.
Abuse of relocation payments isn’t in principle tied down to the VA. Upon questioning, Linda Halliday, deputy inspector general, admitted that the potential for incredible abuse exists across the government.
VA’s Office of Accountability Review is set to recommend personnel actions by Oct. 31.
“Therefore I believe the November 2nd hearing date is appropriate as VA’s should have finished their own internal review by then,” Miller said.