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VA Official on Relocation Scandal: ‘We Weren’t Paying Attention’

Danny Pummill at the Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing / AP
• November 3, 2015 12:28 pm

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A senior official at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs admitted that the agency was not "paying attention" to the relocation program that allowed top executives to pocket nearly $2 million in taxpayer money.

The Washington Post reported that Danny Pummill, acting undersecretary for benefits, told lawmakers on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs at a hearing Monday night that the agency is suspending the relocation program and "doing a re-look at moving programs throughout the agency."

Pummill also said that the VA is rethinking its promotion and transfer of top executives to ensure "everything is being done for the right reasons."

"We weren’t paying attention to everything we should have been paying attention to," Pummill admitted. "We need to do a better job of that."

Lawmakers are currently investigating two of the executives for allegedly exploiting the relocation program to obtain salary hikes and other perks. Pummel, other low-ranking Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) officials, and the two executives were subpoenaed to testify before the House committee.

Both executives, Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves, refused to testify Monday, pleading the Fifth Amendment. Both executives, who kept their six-figure salaries despite taking jobs with less responsibility, face possible criminal prosecution.

Pummill said that the executives would be punished by would not say specifically what the agency is doing in response to their actions. An inspector general discovered in September that the VBA used $1.8 million in taxpayer money to relocate 23 top executives between fiscal years 2013 and 2015, 21 of the jobs coming with salary hikes despite a federal pay freeze.

Allison Hickey, former undersecretary for benefits, resigned following the revelations.

Acting inspector general Linda Halliday said Monday that it is important to hold individuals accountable for misconduct.

"The one thing that tends to make the biggest difference is holding people accountable for these actions," Halliday said. "It sends a message."

Pummill insisted that Sloan Gibson, the VA deputy secretary, "understands that we have an accountability problem" and that holding people accountable would be necessary to ensure a "culture change" at the VA.

Nevertheless, VA Secretary Robert McDonald has refused to support the VA Accountability Act of 2015, a bipartisan bill introduced by Rep. Jeff Miller (R., Fla.), chair of the House Veterans’ Affairs committee, that would allow the secretary to demote or fire a VA employee for poor performance or misconduct. President Obama has also threatened to veto the legislation.

Concerned Veterans for America CEO Pete Hegseth called for both VA executives who took advantage of the relocation program to be fired.

"Instead of embracing accountability, McDonald and top leaders at the VA have shown they are comfortable being part of the problem, not part of the solution," Hegseth said in a statement Monday night. "Those charged with taking care of our veterans should have to play by the same rules as everyone else–if you fail to perform, or engage in unethical conduct on the job, you should be held accountable."

Published under: Veterans Affairs