Two bureaucrats who appear to be the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Thelma and Louise, executives who allegedly exploited the agency’s relocation program and forced other workers out of their jobs, were in the hot seat this week.
Members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee tried to hold their feet to the fire, but instead got the silent treatment. Maybe they studied former IRS official Lois Lerner’s playbook.
The two officials at the center of the this development, Philadelphia Regional Office Director Diana Rubens and St. Paul, Minnesota, VA Regional Office Director Kimberly Graves, were called to testify during the congressional hearing but invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination.
The two allegedly abused the relocation program to obtain more than $400,000 in questionable moving expenses, while reportedly retaining their former salaries, even though their new levels of responsibility didn’t warrant those salaries. The two could face punishment and possible criminal prosecution.
As we reported, the agency’s Inspector General uncovered questionable behavior of Rubens, Graves, and other executives in a report, which prompted the congressional hearing. The watchdog uncovered a pattern of senior officials using the relocation program to skirt pay and bonus freezes instituted by President Obama.
At the hearing, VA leaders sought to downplay systemic corruption opting to paint these episodes as the results of a flawed process. Military Times reports:
Three other department witnesses also subpoenaed by the congressional panel painted a picture of a flawed employee reassignment process but not the systemic, corrosive corruption that several lawmakers have accused top department officials of allowing to fester.
“If I could go back in time, I still would have made all the moves,” said VA’s acting Undersecretary for Benefits Danny Pummill. He blamed the “second and third order” problems of the bonus program on the department moving too quickly to get the right people in posts that needed immediate improvements, to better help veterans.
Pummill replaced Allison Hickey, the Benefits Undersecretary who approved the scheme but later resigned. Pummill claims to be cleaning up the mess left by Hickey and others, but members of Congress asked what he is doing to address the VA’s culture?
[Committee chairman Rep. Jeff ] Miller repeated his concern at Monday’s hearing that top VA officials aren’t focused enough on that type of response.
“If VA put half of the effort into pushing for true accountability or protecting their employees who come forth as whistleblowers as they have for the individuals investigated in this IG report, then I honestly think the department would be in a much better place,” he said.
Pummill’s responses don't inspire much confidence, as the Washington Post reports:
“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.”
This hearing seems to be just the latest display of how Washington bureaucrats can abuse their access and power to profit financially and wiggle out of being held responsible.
Congressman Miller bluntly stated what we all fear is true about Washington: “My suspicion is that this kind of behavior is rampant not only throughout VA but also the rest of the government.”
We all remember Lois Lerner, who proclaimed her innocence and then took the Fifth in a congressional hearing, and of course there was former GSA official, Jeffrey Neely, who partied in a hot tub at a lavish taxpayer funded junket in Las Vegas. These are just a few of the more memorable bureacrats of recent memory.
As the Washington Post also explains i another piece, officials like to play games with Congress and invoke the Fifth Amendment to skirt their responsibility to speak the truth.
Underlying the political theater is a tension between the public’s right to know what wrongdoing is unfolding in the federal government and the civil servant’s right to avoid perjuring himself. This drama unfolds with almost every government scandal. And in a Congress and White House divided between Democrats and Republicans, it ratchets up.
The practice raises the question of whether these are brazen bureaucrats who are thwarting the efforts of Congress to hold public servants accountable, or merely victims of partisan politics who are making use of civil service protections that allow them to insulate themselves from questions.
As taxpayers we want to get to the bottom of the problems and figure out solutions. Too many officials want to skirt being held responsible. It's like a dance that never ends.