While many veterans across the country were being denied medical treatment and much needed hospital care by the Veterans Health Administration, employees with that agency were raking in millions of tax payer dollars over the past five years in bonuses and compensation.
The Veterans Health Administration is just one of dozens of government agencies awarding performance bonuses to employees within their departments, despite the fact that many have been publicly criticized for poor performance. Many times these agencies dole out these bonuses without explaining what criteria they used for issuing the such hefty awards, TheBlaze has learned.
PHOENIX, AZ - MAY 08: Exterior view of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center on May 8, 2014 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Department of Veteran Affairs has come under fire after reports of the deaths of 40 patients forced to wait for medical care at the Phoenix VA hopsital. Christian Petersen/Getty Images
In 2011, the VA awarded more than $400 million in bonuses to its employees, according to Military.com.
After facing a backlash for awarding enormous bonuses in 2011, VA Press Secretary Josh Taylor told Nextgov.com that “based on [Veterans Benefits Administration] organizational performance goals, senior executives will not receive performance awards for fiscal 2012. We remain confident that VBA senior executives are dedicated to our nation’s veterans, and they will continue to lead our drive toward VA’s goal: eliminating the claims backlog in 2015.”
However, according to data made available on Feds Data Center, the agency in 2012 awarded nearly $30 million in bonuses. In fact, eight employees received bonuses over $20,000 totaling $325,790. Two of those bonuses were for $62,895 a piece, according to data calculated by TheBlaze.
VA officials did not return phone calls or emails for comment.
In all, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the VA spent $395 million in 2012 for overall compensation benefits and salary for employees and executives.
Since the Office of Personnel Management began listing government pay and bonuses in 2010, 70 employees have received lump sum bonuses over $20,000 and seven of the employees received bonus checks of more than $50,000 a piece, according to the website. The largest bonuses were issued to three different employees over a two year period and each bonus totaled nearly $63,000 a piece, the Feds Data Center reveals.
The VA in 2010 conducted its own internal audit and found that it had paid $111 million in bonuses to more than 16,000 employees but had little or no documentation to explain why these bonuses were issued. The audit also exposed a problematic overpay of nearly $1 million in unauthorized bonuses, according to the findings in the report.
Thomas Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, a nonprofit group that tracks wasteful government spending said there is little if no explanation for the criteria used by the individual government agencies when awarding employees incentive and performance bonuses. He said Congress needs to demand more accountability from the agencies or very little will change.
"Some of these bonuses are more than a regular American's individual yearly salary," said Schatz."Unfortunately bonuses are tied to a lot of criteria that are not so obvious to the public and many times it's uncertain what that criteria is. On their face [the bonuses] may appear outrageous but they are probably not illegal."
Schatz said the revelation in the Inspector General's report this month that the Environmental Protection Agency over paid employees nearly $500,000 in bonuses that were unauthorized is a rare find and not common.
"Unfortunately many of these large bonuses are authorized and unfortunately justified under the rules that have been reached by employees and government, or the federal employee unions," he said. "I think as far as tax payers are concerned they would be happy if no one got a bonus considering how much money is spent and wasted in Washington. But government waste is not a criteria and wasting the tax payers money is usually not a reason people get fired, let alone set aside bonuses."
Retired Army Sgt. Major Colin Rich, a wounded veteran from North Carolina, told TheBlaze that if it wasn't for private sector medical care provided through generous donations to nonprofits like Operation Mend, at the University of California Los Angeles, he would be extremely limited by what the VA offers.
"It's a travesty," said Rich, who was severely wounded by enemy fire in Afghanistan in 2002 and is surprised by the large bonuses. "Somebody needs to go to jail for what's happened in the VA to the veterans who served and serve this country. They want a bonus? I'll give them a bonus, how about jail time? Whoever is responsible for this needs to go to jail."
Despite the insurmountable failures being reported by employees and patients of the Veterans Administration a number of employees received bonuses over $30,000 and numerous employees received bonuses of more than $62,000 in one lump sum in both 2011 and 2012.
US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (L) looks on as US Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki waves to a friend during a visit the Vietnam Memorial wall on Veterans Day November 11, 2013, in Washington, DC. AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
At the time of the 2010 audit, VA Director Eric Shinseki told Congress in a letter that bonuses in 2011 and 2012 would be reduced and that those given would be done so under strict criteria.
That did not seem to happen, said Schatz.
Shinseki, who served honorably in Vietnam and was wounded on the battlefield, is now at the center of one of the most damaging scandals of the Obama administration. Since the beginning of his tenure in 2009, failures at numerous VA hospitals to treat veterans and continuing information cascading across the nation that cover-ups to hide those failures may have led to the deaths of veterans has congressional representatives calling for his resignation. And while he did admit last week during a Congressional hearing that he was "was mad as hell," his statement didn't seem to convince critics.
In 2011, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, asked Shinseki to suspend bonuses or get rid of them all together until an investigation was conducted. Shinseki refused and said he would investigate the problem.
On Wednesday Sen. Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, sent a letter to Acting Inspector General of the VA Richard Griffin calling for information into the $16.6 million in bonuses that have been awarded to employees with the Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital in west suburban Chicago since 2011. He asked whether waiting times for patients had been manipulated there so criteria for the bonuses could be met, according to a report from the Chicago Tribune.
Government bonuses were down-sized in 2013 due to sequestration and the Presidential Rank Awards were suspended by the Obama administration last year. However, the year long suspension on the awards that garnered top VA executive's some of the biggest bonuses is about to be lifted. This month, the Office of Personnel Management is preparing to reinstate the Presidential awards program. This particular incentive consists of a bonus totaling 20 to 35 percent of an executive's salary and is given in one lump sum at the end of the year to selectees.
Office of Personnel Management Director Katherine Archuleta announced last Monday in a memo written to all agency heads that the department will be accepting nominations for the top executives for the fiscal 2014 awards. It said all nominees must be turned in by June 5. The memo did not specify the percentage of salary that would make up the monetary bonus for this year's nominees.
“Agency heads should consider the current challenging fiscal conditions and resources needed to meet overall agency mission priorities in determining the number of nominations to submit,” she wrote.
The scandal surrounding the Veteran's administration is just "one example of how the government is failing its citizens on multiple levels and wasting tax payer dollars," Schatz added. "And the government should have a criteria that is followed for bonuses."
"I served my country - it's up to the VA and the government to follow through with what they promised us when we signed up and it's up to Congress to investigate this mess and find the guilty party and make them pay," Rich, who served more than 20 years in the Army, said.
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This post has been updated.