Whistleblowers from regional offices of the Veterans Benefits Administration testified before the House Veteran Affairs Committee on Monday night that the agency has been tampering with documents, manipulating records, and retaliating against employees who report problems.
Kristen Ruell, a whistleblower from a VBA regional office in Philadelphia, Pa., told the committee she received an email from an employee in triage, the location where mail is processed, telling her that clerks were setting aside incoming forms when they were not easily identifiable.
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"I went down to the file room that night, after I got this email, and I wanted to see for myself what was going on and I saw these boxes that were labeled 2010 claims, 2011 claims, 2012 claims to be shredded. So I opened them," Ruell said.
"I took pictures and I saw things in the boxes that are not supposed to be shredded. I saw DD214’s—I saw plenty of things that I could identify with a little bit of effort," she said. "There was a total of 96 of those boxes. The VA, their answer to that was it’s military and return mail and the process for military and return mail is after you hold it for one year, you’re allowed to shred it—but the law is assuming that you tried to identify it."
The VBA, under the umbrella of the Department of Veterans Affairs, provides a range of benefits including "financial and other forms of assistance to veterans and their dependents."
Whistleblowers reported countless problems and attributed many of them to systemic failing in leadership at the agency. The problems add to the web of failures that have plagued the Department of Veterans Affairs in recent months.
Ruell testified that production requirements incentivized employees to set forms aside in order to receive gift cards for sorting the most mail.
Congressmen at the hearing were outraged by Ruell's revelations.
"Tonight’s testimony proves that the problems that plague the VHA [Veterans Health Administration] also plague the VBA [Veterans Benefits Administration]," Rep. Doug Lamborn (R., Colo.) said in a statement provided to the Washington Free Beacon.
"Unlike previous testimony from VA bureaucrats saying this is an isolated incident, testimony tonight shows that there appears to be a culture of corruption existing throughout the VA," Lamborn said. "Our veterans should not be treated like they are part of an assembly line of corrupt statistics."
Each witness told Lamborn that they personally experienced or knew of others who experienced retaliation "in response to bringing things forward as a whistleblower in the VA."
Ruell reported that she believes things are "getting worse."
"A lot of employees are petrified to stand up because they see what happened to me and everyone else, and they say they don’t want to be treated like that at work. I have a family to feed," she said. "I feel like the agency has let me down because they promised that you can come into work and have a discrimination free work place and that is not the case."
Ruell reported finding a dent on her car one morning, telling the committee she believed management carried out the vandalism.
Another witness, Javier Soto, told the committee he was "laid off" on June 30 for unclear reasons, days after the Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson issued a letter to employees regarding the "importance of whistleblower protection." At the time of his termination, Soto had been serving as a whistleblower.
Allison Hickey, the VA under secretary for benefits, later told Lamborn that the circumstances of Soto’s firing were not "a normal activity."
When asked by Rep. Julia Brownley (D., Calif.) if they felt "any sense of change coming down from the top around the work environment," all three whistleblowers replied in the negative.
Hickey testified that retaliation against any employee who reported a concern is "absolutely unacceptable to me."
The inspectors general released a report on Monday evaluating the agency’s special initiative to process pending claims.
Hickey maintained that the department has reduced the backlog.
"We have reduced the backlog of veterans claims by more than 56 percent, from its peak of 611,000 to 271,000 today. Last year, our employees completed an all time record breaking 1.17 million claims. This year we’re on track to break that record again by completing 1.3 million claims," Hickey said.
The agency’s inspector general, Linda Halliday, and members of the committee questioned the reduction.
"I don’t believe that anybody at the table is telling me the truth from VA," said chairman Jeff Miller (R., Fla.). "I think that you’re using the numbers to hide backlog claims. I think you’ve selectively chosen not to include the end products in your backlog numbers to make the appearance of progress of the backlogs."
Miller also confronted Hickey about the lack of cooperation from the VBA, reporting that Diana Rubens, the director of the VBA’s Philadelphia regional office, "gave a directive to not tell an agent of this committee what was happening at the regional office."
Hickey said that was unacceptable behavior, but Rubens, who was at the hearing, had not been fired.