A flabbergasted congressman scolded officials from the Veterans Benefits Administration that it is “clear” there “is not a corner that VBA leadership will not cut, nor a statistic that they will not manipulate.”
The angry rebuke came from House Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller during a second hearing into the alleged intimidation of whistleblowers at the scandal scarred Veterans Administration Monday. The hearing went late into the night, ending just before 1 a.m. today.
Miller, R-Fla., asked the VA officials present who was paying the price for agency’s “self-defined success.”
“Whatever hooray you shout, whatever ‘win’ you attempt to claim in 2015, you shall not be celebrated,” Miller said. “It has been made clear that there is not a corner that VBA leadership will not cut, nor a statistic that they will not manipulate to lay claim to a hollow victory.”
“What we all want to see, both my Republican and Democrat colleagues, is progress – not deception,” Miller said.
The committee heard from several whistleblowers for the second straight week, this time to detail how the VBA processed benefits applications, including changing dates of applications that were not fully processed.
Kristen Ruell, an authorization quality services representative at the VBA, claimed that some employees at the Philadelphia Regional Office staff were motivated to manipulate data so they’d get better performance reviews and higher bonuses.
“Instead of solving problems, I was retaliated against,” Ruell testified. “VA’s problems are the result of morally bankrupt managers.”
Ruell told lawmakers her car was dented and covered with coffee one morning and she suspects the culprits were vindictive VBA managers from the Philadelphia office. “If something doesn’t change soon, I don’t know if there’s going to be any good workers left in the VA,” she said.
As the hearing stretched into the night, Miller told the committee about a visit some committee staff took to the Philadelphia Regional Office earlier this month. As several committee aides were preparing to meet with officials July 2, one aide visited the restroom. In the restroom, the committee aide found a notebook that belonged to Acting Regional Director Diana Rubens, apparently directing an official preparing for the briefing to ignore a certain committee aide’s questions. The notes also listed the names of two whistleblowers the committee had been in communication with as well as the names of committee investigators.
Rubens, who claimed that her comments on the notebook were taken out of context, and that she simply wrote the names down when they were mentioned to her.
The committee investigators were directed to a workspace at the regional office which was outfitted with cameras and microphones. Upon discovering they were being monitored, the aides requested to be moved.
“Am I surprised? No, I’m shocked,” Miller said. “The VA may ignore everybody, but I stress you will not ignore this committee anymore.”
The Under Secretary for Benefits apologized to the committee, clearly embarrassed.
“What occurred was not acceptable and not indicative in normal ways of which Ms. Ruben would behave,” Allison Hickey, the VA’s Undersecretary for Benefits, said. “I offer my sincere apologies to your staff and my commitment that it will not happen again. You’ll receive anything you need.”
Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., was one lawmaker who didn’t think the Philadelphia episode was a big deal. “I hope nobody loses their job,” Brown said. “Nobody has business reading someone’s pad in the bathroom.”