The embattled Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has a million problems and here’s another one: a pattern of senior executives gaming the relocation system to skirt President Obama’s pay freezes and bans on bonuses while reducing their workload.

The Inspector General for the VA released a new report that assesses the agency’s relocation expense program and turned up truly appalling cases of senior officials who abused the program for their benefit over the past three years. In total, the VA spent $1.8 million on 23 reassignments through annual salary increases of about $321,000, PCS relocation expenses totaling $1.3 million, and an additional $140,000 in unjustified relocation incentives.

This is interesting because in 21 of the 23 cases, the employees were given salary increases despite the White House-imposed ban on increasing executives’ pay following the atrocious scandal of backlog claims for disability benefits and care at the VA.

The two most egregious cases were Diana Rubens and Kimberley Graves, a pair of DC bureaucrats, who conspired to keep their $181,000 and $173,000 per year salaries, respectively, even though they relocated to new cities to take jobs that had far less responsibilities and oversaw a fraction of the employees. As part of their plan, they forced two managers, who previously occupied the jobs, to accept transfers against their will so they could step right into those jobs.

According to the IG, the two ripped off the relocation expense system for a total of $400,000 in questionable reimbursements. For Rubens’s trip alone, we taxpayers footed a $300,000 bill to relocate her 140 miles, from Washington to Philadelphia, Pa. I guess we got a steal on Graves’s relocation to St. Paul, MN.

Going down with them may be the VA’s Undersecratary of Veterans Benefits Allison Hickey and two of her deputies for encouraging the scheme.

Sadly, these two bandits aren’t the only ones at the VA.

The Washington Post reports:

The job changes are the most striking examples of what investigators described as a pattern of unjustified moving incentives and transfers by senior executives to increase their salaries or keep them after their responsibilities were reduced. The reassignments were designed to circumvent a pay freeze at the Veterans Benefits Administration, the report found.

While we do not question the need to reassign some staff to manage a national network of [regional offices], we concluded that VBA inappropriately utilized [the relocation] program for the benefit of its senior executive workforce,” the report concluded.

The House’s leading critic of the agency called watchdog’s findings more proof of VA’s “corrosive culture” and said the managers responsible “must be held accountable.”

“It is clear from this report that Under Secretary Hickey and others in VA leadership knew they could use fear, intimidation, and timely relocation incentives to coerce subordinates to relocate to jobs they didn’t apply for at the taxpayers’ expense,” Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said in a statement.

Asked if the reassignments were used to get around pay freezes and bans on bonuses, Danny Pummill, principal deputy undersecretary for benefits at VBA, told investigators: “I would say that’s probably true,” according to the report.

While the amounts aren’t huge, the implications are clear: the VA still needs to get its act together. Hickey defended Rubens during congressional scrutiny into these same questionable moving expenses.

There is a culture at the VA and other federal agencies that view the public coffers as their personal slush fund and public service as a privilege to be abused. If the benefit is there and you can get away with it, you might as well, seems to be the mindset of many federal workers who we’ve seen time-and-time again exploit access, power, and roles to their advantage. If it’s not DEA agents hosting sex parties overseas while on duty, it’s a Commerce official hoarding government computers at her home so her kids can watch porn, or employees at –of all places- the Government Accountability Office fudging their income so their kids can get free and reduced lunch.

No agency is free of unscrupulous employees just as no company has a personnel file of angels, but the incidences in government agencies is high, the conduct outrageous and –in some cases- criminal, and the response on the part of agency leadership is too often weak at best.

Firing one or two people is not enough. Swift and sure punishment needs to be meted out, and a change in culture needs to occur so that workers understand they are beholden to the American people not the other way around.