The federal government is trying to recoup enlistment bonuses given erroneously to thousands of California soldiers despite routinely allowing poor-performing VA employees to keep their bonus checks.
The Los Angeles Times reported last week that the Pentagon demanded that thousands of California soldiers repay bonuses they were given to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Defense Department asked the soldiers to repay the bonuses, which amounted to $15,000 or more each, after audits revealed they were overpaid by the California National Guard.
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But the practice stands in contrast with that of the Obama administration's Department of Veterans Affairs, which has failed to take back hundreds of thousands of dollars paid to high-ranking bureaucrats who have been scrutinized for bad behavior or poor management.
For instance, the VA said last year it would not collect over $400,000 in bonuses paid to two senior executives who manipulated the agency's hiring system to take new jobs with less responsibility and receive relocation benefits. The VA, which acknowledged that the employees abused the system, said it did not have the legal authority to recoup the money.
The agency awarded $100,000 in bonuses to the regional director of the VA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 2013 after an inspector general report exposed systemic failures that led to the deaths of six veterans as a result of a Legionnaires' outbreak on his watch.
The VA also gave $64,000 in bonuses to an executive who stepped down after overseeing four VA hospital construction projects that ran $2 billion over budget. The high-level official is now eligible for federal retirement benefits.
The VA curtailed bonuses for a small segment of senior executives two years ago after veterans were found to have died waiting for care at their hospitals, but the department continued to disburse performance-based bonuses to thousands of employees.
The VA paid out $142 million in bonuses in 2014, the year the scandal over hidden wait lists spurred a national outcry. This sum included extra paychecks for employees at VA facilities that were cited for poor management and bad performance, according to reporting by USA Today last year.
Employees who received bonuses that year included staffers who managed a facility in Tomah, Wisconsin that over-prescribed opiates to veterans, including one who died; executives who oversaw construction of a facility near Denver that is more than $1 billion over budget; a high-level official at the VA in St. Cloud, Minnesota who was cited by internal investigators for poor performance; and a manager at the VA in Augusta, Georgia who admitted to drinking and driving a government vehicle.
The VA's network of hospitals has been scrutinized by lawmakers and veterans groups for continued mismanagement and shortcomings in patient care. A newly released inspector general report shed light on continued health care delays and bad scheduling practices at the VA in Phoenix, Arizona, the epicenter of the wait list scandal two years ago.
"The government's priorities have been made abundantly clear to both veterans and American taxpayers. Why aren't incompetent–and even criminal–VA employees being asked to pay back their bonuses?" Mark Lucas, a member of the Iowa National Guard who serves as executive director of Concerned Veterans for America, told the Washington Free Beacon.
"Unfortunately, this kind of waste, fraud, and abuse, is common out of the Pentagon. There is very little Congressional oversight of how the Pentagon is spending taxpayer money–that's what allows mismanagement like this to happen in the first place. We need to do a better job auditing the Pentagon," Lucas said. "Bottom line: this whole situation is shameful. CVA is urging Congress to act immediately to waive these repayments."
When contacted for comment, the White House referred the Free Beacon to the VA, which did not respond to a request for comment.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Tuesday that the Pentagon will "look into" and "resolve" the enlistment bonus issue, though he didn't elaborate on how the issue could be resolved.
Earlier Tuesday, top Republican lawmakers wrote a letter to Carter insisting that the service members be allowed to keep their bonuses.
"We are dismayed that our men and women who answered their country's call to duty are now being forced to repay what was promised to them in exchange for their honorable service," wrote House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) and 19 of his colleagues.
"Some have faced the threat of wage garnishments and tax liens if they refuse. This is no way to treat those who have fulfilled their commitments to our country. They should be held harmless in light of the fraud that was perpetrated upon them by overzealous recruiters," the lawmakers wrote.
The incident has drawn a response from both major-party presidential nominees, with Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton criticizing the "rigid bureaucracy" of the Pentagon and calling on Congress to pass legislation to fix the problem.
The VA did not comment on the matter and referred the Free Beacon to the Pentagon.
Update Oct. 26, 9:55 A.M.: This post has been updated to reflect that when asked about VA employee bonuses, the VA referred the Free Beacon to the Pentagon.