VA officials take the 5th on relocation program fraud scandal

With just a few more headlines the Veterans Administration may just overtake the IRS and the EPA as holder of the title of the Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight. (Or keep their stories straight for that matter.) You may recall a few months back that some officials in the VA were caught with their hands in the cookie jar, taking advantage of generous relocation programs available to senior administrators to line their own pockets. It involved forcing some junior people out of desirable positions and filling those newly vacant slots with… themselves. In the process, though the offices had fewer duties and less responsibilities, they managed to land themselves a raise (at a time when raises were verboten) and big compensation packages for the move to boot.

The acting undersecretary for benefits at the agency, Danny Pummill, was on the Hill answering questions on the subject and his explanations weren’t terribly satisfactory to say the least. (Washington Post)

The Department of Veterans Affairs has suspended a relocation program used by two senior executives to obtain more than $400,000 in questionable moving expenses and moved to discipline the officials, a senior agency leader said Monday.

Danny Pummill, acting undersecretary for benefits, told lawmakers on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee that VA is “doing a re-look at moving programs throughout the agency” and reconsidering how it promotes and transfers senior executives, “so everything is being done for the right reasons.”…

“We weren’t paying attention to everything we should have been paying attention to,” Pummill said. “We need to do a better job of that.”

That’s putting it mildly, Mr. Pummill, but that’s hardly the worst of it. The VA seems to be continuing their practice of never holding anyone accountable and clamming up when the spotlight is turned on them. The two officials in question, Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves, were asked to testify but immediately cited their Fifth Amendment rights and refused. Even though they are facing criminal prosecution over the matter, neither of these two have been terminated and both are still collecting their very handsome salaries of more than $170K. When asked what specific actions were being taken against them, Pummill declined to say.

This seems to be a continuation of a previous pattern. Pummill himself is only in his current position because he replaced Allison Hickey who was in charge of oversight of the relocation program when the scandal was brought to light. And what happened to her? She resigned. She wasn’t fired or disciplines or tossed in the slammer. She was allowed to resign.

This prompted one Congressman to ask Pummill not about the specifics of the two women who made off with all the money, but rather what was being done about the culture of corruption which seems to infest the VA.

“What about the culture change?” Rep. Dan Benishek (R-Mich.) asked Pummell.

His response was candid.

“It’s devastating that the senior leaders are not held as accountable as the lowest people in the organization,” he said, acknowledging VA’s persistent problems with morale. He said Sloan Gibson, the agency’s second in command, “understands that we have an accountability problem.”

“We pay out of a lot of money,” Pummill said. “We have to be accountable to the Congress of the United States.”

There still hasn’t been a real house cleaning at the VA and there is essentially nobody in any position of power being held accountable until they actually find someone stealing. (Read more on this story at The Military Times.) The department has a lot more problems than misappropriation of some Human Resources funds. The entire barrel of apples is looking more and more rotten by the month and nobody is being taken to task for it. So what will they do?

We probably won’t find out because of that whole Fifth Amendment thing.