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VA watchdog to investigate payout of $288,000 in 'relocation expenses' to one senior VA official

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 10: Chairman of U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL) speaks during a news conference July 10, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Rep. Miller held the news conference to discuss the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act. Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Department of Veterans Affairs' Office of Inspector General has started a formal investigation into how one senior VA official was paid more than a quarter of a million dollars in relocation expenses when she was transferred from Washington, D.C., to lead the Philadelphia regional office.

It was reported last week that Philadelphia VA Director Diana Rubens was paid $288,206.77 when she relocated to Philadelphia in 2014. That's more than $250,000 more than the average relocation expense normally offered to VA officials, according to data provided by the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 10: Chairman of U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL) speaks during a news conference July 10, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Rep. Miller held the news conference to discuss the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act. Alex Wong/Getty Images House Veterans Affairs Committee Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) demanded, and finally got, an investigation into the payment of $288,000 in relocation expenses for a senior VA official. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) asked for an investigation in a March 10 letter to the OIG, and late last week, the OIG said that investigation is now underway.

"The OIG is reviewing the documentation regarding the propriety of expenses associated with Ms. Rubens' move from the VA Central Office to the Philadelphia VARO," Deputy Inspector General Richard Griffin wrote. "When that review is complete, we will provide you the results."

The excess payment far exceeds what's normally given out to officials who relocate. From 2009 to 2011, for example, the average relocation payments ranged from about $12,000 to $13,000. The alleged payment made to Rubens is more than 20 times that normal amount.

The VA is defending the payout so far, and justified it as a necessary payment to keep a highly qualified employee.

"Ms. Rubens is one of VBA's most experienced and highly skilled senior leaders, having led the operations of VBA's entire field organization for many years," the VA said in a statement to TheBlaze. "In filling the position of the director of the Philadelphia Regional Office, VA recognized that its very best leader was needed to address the complex challenges and issues faced by the office and its employees."

But the House committee has also asked deeper questions about the payment to Ruben. For example, the VA has said it needed to pay her more money to entice her to Philadelphia, but there is some speculation that she wanted to go to that city anyway.

Questions are also being raised about the sale of her Alexandria, Va., property. According to property records, Rubens sold it for $770,000 in July, 2014. But less than a year later, that property was sold again for $692,500 — some are wondering how she was able to sell her house for so much more at a time when property values have been stable in the Washington, D.C., region.

The OIG also said it would assess the controls current in place that are aimed at stopping improper reimbursements, and will review a separate case involving an employee who was allowed to keep a higher pay grade when she took a job that is technically at a lower pay grade.

The huge relocation payment is just the latest in a string of management failures for the VA, which continues to face criticism that it's treating its senior workers with kid gloves while there are still massive problems trying to do its primary job of getting veterans access to health care services.

Last week, a top VA official was allowed to resign even though he oversaw construction projects that were routinely late and hundreds of millions of dollars over budget.

A survey by a veterans group showed that the VA's new program to get veterans health care outside the VA system isn't routinely being offered to qualified veterans. And despite passage of a law to help the VA secretary fire corrupt or inept officials, just a handful have been let go, not the dozens that VA Secretary Robert McDonald initially claimed.

Read the OIG's letter to Miller, and Miller's initial letter to the OIG:

 

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