Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) is calling on the Department of Justice to investigate unethical behavior by employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Veterans Benefit Administration (VBA).
VBA officials spent $1.8 million over three years for the relocation services of 23 high-ranking department personnel, VA’s inspector general found in a recent report.
In a letter released Oct. 6, Blumenthal stated DoJ should open a case against VA after a report from the department’s IG issued last month, found VBA used funds from its Permanent Change of Station program (PCS) as a loophole for avoiding pay freezes currently in effect at VA.
“This scheme to defraud taxpayers and manipulate the system is, unfortunately, only the latest example of unacceptable misconduct by VA employees,” Blumenthal said in his letter. “This behavior is unacceptable for any federal employee, but it is particularly egregious in this case because it evinces a mindset that puts veterans last.”
Blumenthal, the ranking member of the Committee on Veterans Affairs, urged DoJ to open an investigation since federal prosecutors have chosen not to pursue a majority of these cases, despite holding evidence of criminal behavior or misconduct.
As of June 30, 43 of the 55 cases the IG sent to DoJ as part of the wait-time data manipulation debacle were not pursued for criminal investigation, he said.
“DoJ has an essential role to play in helping to hold any bad actors fully accountable across VA,” Blumenthal’s letter stated. “Whether through providing guidance to VA OIG, issuing special instructions to United States Attorneys’ offices, or taking other steps, I encourage you to fully and expeditiously pursue potential theories of liability in these and similar cases.”
Blumenthal encouraged the VA IG and DoJ to work more closely together and ensure evidence that is collected about these cases meet the appropriate standards.
“To the extent that these decisions have resulted from insufficient evidence of criminal intent in cases where your office believes such intent might have existed but evidentiary standards were not met, I ask that DoJ work more closely with the VA OIG to ensure that its evidence-gathering aligns with your requirements and that you put special emphasis on investigating the possibility of prosecution of cases stemming from these reports,” Blumenthal wrote. “DoJ has an essential role to play in helping to hold any bad actors fully accountable across VA.”
The VA OIG report came about after an anonymous complaint alleged one senior executive received $288,206.77 in relocation expenses for transferring from VBA headquarters to another position in Philadelphia, while retaining a high-level Senior Executive Service salary despite the position being two levels lower on VA’s SES pay scale.
According to testimonials in the report, the VA Chief of Staff said “an SES employee’s salary could be increased as long as the executive was moving to a different location.”
The final results from the report found that while the relocation expenses complied with federal and VA policy, VBA inappropriately used relocation services as a way for senior executives to receive salary increases and used the PCS program to pay for their moving costs.
The VA OIG made 12 recommendations, which included that the VA deputy secretary hold more oversight with the request and approval processes for relocation-related services.
The VA chief of Staff concurred with all of the VA OIG’s findings.