Others’ opinion: Another self-inflicted black eye for Veterans Affairs

Published 10:11 am Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency

It’s not easy to further tarnish the public image of bureaucrats, long derided for devotion to procedural minutiae over common sense. But this week, two senior Veterans Affairs officials, one of whom works in Minnesota, took the reputation of civil servants down another notch.

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Their alleged crass, self-serving behavior, documented in a new report from the VA inspector general, also undermines already ailing confidence in their scandal-plagued agency, under fire for delays in providing veterans’ health care.

The two administrators work for the Veterans Benefits Administration, a part of the Department of Veterans Affairs that was the subject of a 2012 congressional hearing scrutinizing its massive backlog in claims processing. On Monday, the inspector general released the results of an investigation triggered by a whistleblower’s call about nearly $300,000 in moving benefits paid out to administrator Diana Rubens when she transferred from Washington, D.C., to a regional office in Philadelphia.

The other administrator the report focuses on is Kimberly Graves, who volunteered in 2014 to move to Minnesota to head up the regional benefits office in St. Paul. Graves’ moving expenses were $129,467. The inspector general is referring its findings on the two to the U.S. attorney’s office for possible criminal prosecution.

Surprisingly, the investigators generally did not take issue with the eyebrow-raising moving expenses. Rubens and Graves qualified for a VA program that assists transferred officials when their houses can’t be sold quickly. That’s what yielded the large sums and the report concluded that policies were followed. The sums, however, stand in stark contrast to the average employer relocation package — $21,033 — documented by a 2012 survey.

Instead, investigators concluded that “two [other] directors appear to have been inappropriately coerced to leave positions” to “create vacancies for Ms. Rubens and Ms. Graves.” Rubens and Graves “inappropriately used their positions of authority for personal and financial benefit,” the report stated.

Referring these actions to the U.S. attorney’s office is proper and commendable. Swift action to hold these administrators accountable will be a strong deterrent to others.