Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) officials routinely give each other huge recruitment, relocation and retention bonuses to move from one city to another or just to keep the job they have, wasting as much as $40 million annually, according to a government watchdog.
Just for one year, 2014, the VA Office of Inspector General (IG) audit concluded that all 19 relocation incentives awarded to senior executives were improper. And VA often seemed uninterested in recovering the funds when the recipients failed to fulfill the obligations that accompanied the payments.
“VHA did not enforce repayment requirements, as required … for about 55 percent of the estimated 238 incentives for which employees did not fulfill their recruitment or relocation service obligations,” the IG said.
The payments are intended to entice someone to take a job they would otherwise refuse, or to keep them from leaving the department, but VA execs instead used them in effect as a slush fund. For example, they might offer a recruitment bonus after the employee had already started, even though it couldn’t have influenced the decision to take or reject the job offer.
The improper payments often involved fraudulent documentation for amounts that frequently equaled about $50,000.
In one instance, department officials falsely claimed that a Hudson Valley VA director in New York needed a $50,000 bonus because the facility had excessive turnover and the top position had been vacant too long. None of that was true, the IG found. Officials also claimed the bonus was needed because few people applied during the one day the position was publicly advertised as vacant.
The IG report adds new evidence for critics who claim VA has no interest in hiring from outside its own ranks, thus excluding leaders in other private, public and military health systems and “reversing its recruitment strategy” without explanation.
The VA regularly moves failed senior executives on a merry-go-round of high management positions in its hospitals, removing one amid scandal, only to reappear at another facility while being touted by department leaders as the savior for that region’s own problem-plagued hospital.
Multiple examples of this VA merry-go-around of incompetence can be found in the Daily Caller News Foundation Investigative Group’s interactive database plotting the moves. The Phoenix VA hospital, for example, has had seven directors in three years, with each short-timer typically collecting huge checks for moving.
There is often a reason they couldn’t keep their old job. Its latest director was shipped to the Philippines after overseeing a St. Louis hospital that ranked last in the nation in patient satisfaction. When the storm blew over, she was paid a relocation bonus again to move to Phoenix.
Public awareness of the unscrupulous paycheck-padding–and VA leaders’ willingness to scratch each others’ backs–began three years ago when a top executive in the department’s Washington headquarters, Kim Graves, forced a hospital director who was a veteran out of his job so that she could take it herself. Graves kept her higher headquarters salary and took $130,000 in relocation, and moved to the lower cost-of-living area.
Another VA executive, Diana Rubens, collected $300,000 to move from the Washington, D.C. area to Philadelphia, claiming she needed the money to convince her to agree to the move, even though she herself advocated for the move, and that’s where here family is.
The VA undersecretary who helped Graves and Rubens in these actions resigned, but discipline for the two was blocked when a judge said others had done similar things without facing consequences, so it was unfair to treat them differently. And even though the expenditures were deemed improper, VA never recouped the payments.
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