WASHINGTON (AP) — A House committee chairman renewed his criticism Thursday of the bonuses paid to senior executives at the Veterans Affairs Department and called on the VA to recoup a nearly $63,000 bonus given to an official who oversaw a Pittsburgh hospital where an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease killed five veterans.
Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said that giving the government's top award for its senior professionals to VA regional director Michael Moreland showed there was no limit to the "VA's tone deafness." The American Legion also said the award "defies all logic."
"We are calling on VA to conduct a top-to-bottom review of its performance appraisal system to ensure outrageous bonus payments like this do not occur in the future," Miller said.
The Legionnaires' disease outbreak in Pittsburgh sickened as many as 21 patients and was linked to five deaths from February 2011 to November 2012. A report from VA's inspector general in late April said widespread management problems contributed to failures in detecting and managing the outbreak but did not assign blame to any specific individuals. Moreland oversees numerous VA medical centers in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Delaware.
Miller, R-Fla., has been critical of late of the VA's performance bonuses, saying that some have gone to employees and managers who have failed in their jobs.
The VA announced recently that it would not give any performance bonuses this year to executives who administer the disability claims system, under which about two-thirds of veterans with claims pending wait more than 125 days for their claims to be resolved. Miller has been similarly critical of bonuses that have been paid to some of those who oversee VA medical facilities.
The award to Moreland, however, is separate from the annual performance awards given to senior executives at the VA and other federal departments. He received the Presidential Distinguished Rank Award, which is designed to honor executives for extraordinary long-term achievements. The award goes out to no more than 1 percent of federal executives and also provides winners with a cash bonus equal to 35 percent of their salary. Moreland's achievements included establishing an independent liver and kidney transplant program at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, saving the government an estimated $4 million a year.
Department secretaries nominate potential recipients of the award to the Office of Personnel Management. The VA was notified that Moreland won in October. The following month, officials at the VA's central office received an issue brief alerting them to Legionella, the bacteria that cause Legionnaires' disease, at the Pittsburgh hospital.
The VA said in a statement that it's conducting a review of Moreland's nomination and will take any appropriate action when that review is complete. The department declined to make Moreland available for comment.
The American Legion expressed concerns that the award ceremony came days after the inspector general's report. James E. Koutz, the group's national commander, said award guidelines clearly state nominees must not be involved in any investigation or situation that would cause embarrassment.
"I certainly think this qualifies as such a case," Koutz said.
But Carol A. Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association that represents career professionals in the federal government, said Moreland was named a winner of the award months before last weekend's ceremony.
She said to have not gone ahead with the award "would be unprecedented, and I'm not sure it would stand up legally."
The union representing VA's hospital workers also was critical of the award to Moreland.
"This is absolutely unbelievable," said J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees.