Thursday, September 24, 2009

The strong and classy First Lady Michelle







"This is a hearing on SES bonuses and other administrative issues at the US Department of Veterans Affairs," US Rep Harry Mitchell explained as he brought the US House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing to order this morning. The SES bonuses? Bonuses awarded by the VA. Are they being awarded fairly? What's the process? Who's overseeing? In addition, there is concern over hiring practices including issues of nepotism. "Since 2007," US House Rep John Hall said, "I have been -- and this committee has been -- deeply concerned about this issue of bonus awards at the Department of Veterans Affairs. I hope that this hearing will demonstrate the steps that the VA has taken to make bonuses about rewarding excellence not about helping out friends or families."

At a time when the country's experiences an economic crisis, the bonus issue has already gotten headlines in the corporate world. Now it comes to the public sector and does so at a time when many are surprised top officials in the VA still have jobs with all the problems veterans face attempting to access care. Hall put it more nicely.

US House Rep John Hall: Recent news articles and reports from the VA's Inspector General have shed light on rampant nepotism and abuse by those in a position of power. The Associated Press detailed an embarrassing episode in which a VA employee, having an affair with their superior, was reinbursed for 22 flights between Florida and Washington. One office at the VA received $24 million in bonuses over a two year period. $24 million is a lot of money in this economic climate, with many veterans living on an ever tightening budget, and it's irresponsible for us to allow this to continue without taking a careful look at who is earning the bonuses and who is not. As many of you know, I introduced a bill in the last Congress that required no bonuses to be paid out to senior VA officials until the claims backlog was under 100,000 claims. I think we can all agree that our first priority is to the veterans that served our country and paid the price. In this Congress, I'm considering other ways to make sure that bonuses are awarded fairly and within reason and, to me, an increasingly backlog indicates that there are some at VA who should not be receiving bonuses?

Today's hearing follows multiple reports of veterans struggling to get needed care. Friday, Tom Philpott (Stars and Stripes) reported on a forum and noted Army Cpl Kevin Kammerdiener's mother Leslie Kammerdienr explaining how her son, a veteran of both the Iraq War and the Afghanistan War, suffers when attempting to receive care:

One of their worst experiences occurred Labor Day weekend last year when she and Kevin, who was severely burned and lost the left side of his brain to an explosion, arrived at the VA Polytrauma Center in Tampa, Fla., for follow-up treatment and no one knew he was coming. "We had no medications for him. We had no bed for his burned body and we had no food for his feeding tube -- for 30 hours," Leslie said. "My son suffered for 30 hours because this system was not ready." Just a week ago, she said, Kevin signaled that he wanted to take his own life by hanging. She called the VA hospital for help. "Days went by and nobody called me." Finally, she confronted VA doctor at a social event "and said, 'Look, you guys have to help us ... I'm not trained. I'm not a nurse. I'm not a neurosurgeon. I'm not a psychologist. I'm not a therapist. I'm just a mom. And I don't have any help with this'."

Elaine noted that article on Friday and observed how common these type of stories are, "At a certain point, I don't think you can be immune to these stories (nor do I believe you should), but I do think it gets to a level where you can no longer pretend that it's an isolated incident or a series of isloated incidents. The VA isn't doing their job. Why is that? It goes to the top and it goes to a disrespect of veterans at the top."

Today's hearing certainly backs that up -- as have other hearings. Subcommittee Chair Mitchell explained, "We all know that the Department of Veterans Affairs has some of the hardest working and dedicated employees; however, there are concerns about the VA bonus process and how the VA matches pay to individual and organizational performance." Again, the problem's at the top. It's not the workers having direct contact with the veterans. But there is a culture of neglect at the top, a culture of abuse as well. US tax payers fork over money for any number of things and among those things that hopefully only a small number would complain about is veterans health care. However, when the money that is supposed to go to veterans health care goes elsewhere, there's a serious problem which should result in serious investigations.

The subcommittee heard from two panels. The first panel was James O'Neill from the VA's Inspector General's Office (joined by Joseph G. Sullivan and Michael Bennett). The second panel was the VA's Deputy Secretary W. Scott Gould (joined by John Gingrich, John U. Sepulveda and Willie L. Hensley). Subcommittee Chair Mitchell put the witnesses under other before they testified.

In his opening statement, James O'Neill observed, "Federal law states that a public official may not apoint, employ, promote, advance or advocate for the appointment, employment, promotion or advancement in or to a civilian position any person who is a relative of the public official." That seems pretty clear.

But some officials at the VA seem confused. O'Neill detailed attempts by a VA official to get a contractor to hire her friend, the same official passing on "nonpublic VA procurement information" which the friend could use in seeking employment from a contractor, anoter woman working for the VA broke policies and used preferential (illegal) treatment to hire five friends, she went on to then give two of them higher pay than was warranted, a male manager used his position and influence to see that an unqualified family member was hired in the same division, he also abused his position (and the rules) by getting an additional family member appointed to the Austin Human Resource staff, another official informed her subordinates involved in hiring that she wanted her friend hired, to ensure that this friend working for a contractor was 'familiar' with the job, the official began bringing her "into government day-to-day business," closed the job because, by rules, a veteran was ahead of the friend in the relisting and then had the job relisted so her friend could reapply, three employees pushed friends to the top of the applicant pool by falsifying information and spreadsheets. Education? VA officials helped one another attend George Washington University at the tax payer expense despite the degrees not being related to their positions, they 'curiously' failed to track the spending and the Inspector General's Office had to get the information from GWU. Despite a departmental shortfall -- a known shortfall -- senior managers awarded $24 million in retention bonuses and awards over two years.

As O'Neill noted, "OI & T officials broke the rules to hire, favor and financially benefit their friends and family in so doing they wasted VA resources that could have been put to better use and they failed to ensure that the best qualified individuals were hired so veterans can receive the best possible service that they deserve and have earned."

Subcommittee Chair Harry Mitchell: Why did you go to OI & T [Office of Information & Technology]? How did you happen to pick that? Have you done other divisions or departments? Was it tipped off or what?

James O'Neill: It was an allegation that we received, sir. Specifically about certain individuals in OI & T. That launched our investigation.

Subcommittee Chair Harry Mitchell: And this is the only section that you've looked into? Was OI & T?

James O'Neill: In this matter, sir.

Subcommittee Chair Harry Mitchell: In this matter. But you don't know if nepotism or the bonuses or anything other departments you'd find the same type of behavior in other departments?

James O'Neill: That would be speculation because I don't have any data to support it. We periodically have conducted investigations relating to allegations of nepotism in the past but, frankly, I can't recall the last one we had. It's been awhile.

Subcommittee Chair Harry Mitchell: I guess I was saying that a lot of your investigations are based on somebody coming forward and allegating, making some sort of allegation of some misuse or improper procedure.

James O'Neill: Particularly administrative investigations, yes, sir.

Subcommittee Chair Harry Mitchell: What are the top three recommendations that you've made for the VA to ensure that the procedures that you've outlined and that we know that are there are actually enforced?

James O'Neill: Well in this particular matter -- uh -- we recommended that they determine and apply the appropriate administrative actions against the eight individuals that were cited in the report, that they issue bills of collection where appropriate for improper payments related to the graduate degrees in particular, determine what corrective actions would be appropriate to deal with the problems we identified during our investigation. Someone hired under an expired direct hire authority? They -- VA has to take some corrective action. Uh -- provide training on hiring and the provision of awards throughoout OI & NT. And review the use of the hiring authorities and the funding for academic degrees and retention allowances to ensure compliance with applicable standards.

Subcommittee Chair Harry Mitchell: I guess maybe you've kind of answered this but what oversight function in the VA broke down in the Human Resources process?

James O'Neill: I would say that um the leadership of OI & T did not pay adequate attention to the awards that were being distributed, the hiring practices that we cite in our report and uh and of course the payment for academic degrees so I would lay it at the feet of management of OI & T at the time and whatever oversight HR would provide would also need addressing.

Ranking Member David P. Roe was bothered by the awards and bonuses and twice noted the case of one VA new hire who had not completed her first 90 days but was given $4,500 award/bonus from a supervious who now claimed not to remember why that was. As Roe noted, when this happens, others know and it destroys morale. Roe noted that it was difficult to grasp "how this wasn't picked up," the various violations including hiring your family.

US House Rep John Hall: Does the Department have guidelines for administrative action to cover this type of behavior, for instance, hiring multiple members of one's family?

James O'Neill: Certainly, sir.

US House Rep John Hall: Good. Glad to hear it. Is there a timeline for the implementation of your recommendations by the Office of Human Resources

James O'Neill: Well as I mentioned earlier, I belive the timeline request came in to extend -- in order to, uhm, take the recommen -- the recommend action, the individual against whom the action is recommended has a period of time for an appeal so I think that the request is to allow that time to pass to provide a formal response to us. We -- I have reasion to believe this is pursuing on track.

US House Rep John Hall: I will take that -- I will take that to mean we shouldn't have to worry that the VA is looking at this with the seriousness with which the public and this committee sees it.

James O'Neill: I am absolutely confident they are looking at it with quite serious eyes.

US House Rep John Hall: What do you think is the top number one action out of your report that would improve the way bonuses are given out? We're all expressing a concern that they reflect performance rather than just being automatic, yearly, like a Christmas gift.

James O'Neill: Well we made a specific recommendation to review retention bonuses within the Office of Information and Technology. Retention bonuses make up a large portion of the "bonus" [C.I. note, he made air quotes when saying bonus] pool that is expanded in that area and perhaps elsewhere in VA. But they -- our recommendation, I think, is very specifically directed at retention bonuses. Uh, we didn't make a formal recommendation to look at, uh, awards beyond that but it would be clear to me that, after reading this report, that the current management would feel required to look at it. This is pretty appalling when you talk about a $4500 award for GS5, I've been administrating awards for a long time and we have GS13s that risk their lives and don't get anything close to that so it's glaring. I think that our report will prompt a close review of these processes.

Last week. Julia O'Malley (McClatchy's Anchorage Daily News) reported on Iraq War veteran John Mayo who was on multiple medications and was charged by the military with shoplifting -- an crime Mayo can't even remember taking place. As a result he was discharged and he and his family became homeless when the military immediately showed up, during dinner, at their base home and kicked them out. Mayo suffers from PTSD. His mother Cathy Mayo feels Iraq change her son, 'broke' him and, "What they did to him, you don't do it to a dog. I lost my son."
It's in that climate, where veterans are struggling for help and not getting it or getting the wrong kind of help and the realization that this comes down to economic issues resulting not from an attempt to spend generously on veterans or a bad economy but from abuse and misuse by the VA that Congress really needs to launch an investigation. This is a disgusting misuse of tax payer money -- and Congress controls the purse. In addition, it should be criminally prosecuted when the VA money is misused. Regardless of whether or not, for example, the money going to bonuses was from a special section of the budget and didn't take away monies already budgeted for care, it's still a misuse and it should result in criminal penalties. Not simply firing, not simply making someone pay it back. It's criminal and it should be treated as such. Bonuses are far from the VA's only problem as Congress learned on Tuesday.

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