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Scandal Watch: VA Officials Plead the Fifth Over Abuse, Waste

Two high-ranking officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs exercised their constitutional right against self-incrimination today, declining to answer questions
about a scheme in which they allegedly bilked taxpayers out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Just to be clear, this kerfuffle is not to be confused with the larger VA scandal that was recently distorted and minimized by presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. That corruption entailed the deliberate, systemic cover-up of unacceptably long waiting lists for care -- in part to protect bureaucrats' performance bonuses. This corruption is entirely different, though it speaks to the culture of of greed and wastefulness that seems to pervade much of the federal bureaucracy (via the Washington Post):

The Department of Veterans Affairs has suspended a relocation program used by two senior executives to obtain more than $400,000 in questionable moving expenses and moved to discipline the officials, a senior agency leader said Monday...Congress is investigating the executives for allegedly abusing their positions to get plum jobs and perks, part of a pattern of unjustified moving incentives and transfers identified by VA’s watchdog. The committee subpoenaed Pummill, the executives and the two lower-ranking regional benefits managers they forced to accept job transfers against their will, according to investigators. But the executives, Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves, refused to testify, telling the committee they were asserting their Fifth Amendment rights under the Constitution to protect themselves against self-incrimination...[Pummill] declined to say what action the agency is taking against Rubens and Graves, who kept their salaries of $181,497 and $173,949, respectively, even though the new positions they took had less responsibility, overseeing a fraction of the employees at lower pay levels.

Between salary increases and relocation expenses, the VBA spent $1.8 million to reassign 23 senior executives from fiscal 2013 to fiscal 2015, investigators found. In all but two cases, the new jobs came with pay raises, despite a White House-imposed freeze on senior executives’ pay — and a widely publicized ban on bonuses stemming from a backlog of outstanding claims for disability benefits...Acting inspector general Linda Halliday disclosed in September that Rubens and Graves “inappropriately used their positions of authority for personal and financial benefit” when they forced lower-ranking officials to transfer out of their positions and then filled the vacancies themselves.

In other words, these government employees -- who were already earning six figures -- devised a method of manipulating the system in order to enrich themselves while also shedding workload, managing to bypass moratoriums on raises and bonuses imposed as a result of their agency's infamous scandal.  Fox News' Mike Emanuel filed this report earlier on The Real Story:

One of the silver linings on this episode of malfeasance is that due to reforms implemented in the wake of the broader VA scandal, Ms. Rubens and Graves will have fewer options at their disposal as they fight accountability: "Their punishment for administrative misconduct will be one of the first cases handled under a new law that speeds up dismissals and other discipline against VA senior executives, who now have far fewer appeal rights than they once did," the Post reports, adding this telling exchange from today's hearing:

“What about the culture change?” Rep. Dan Benishek (R-Mich.) asked Pummell. His response was candid. “It’s devastating that the senior leaders are not held as accountable as the lowest people in the organization,” he said, acknowledging VA’s persistent problems with morale.

Critics of both the Obama administration and the US government's sprawling federal bureaucracy have grown accustomed to officials 'pleading the fifth' while entangled in controversy. Former IRS supervisor Lois Lerner 
refused to answer Congress' questions about the political targeting regime she helped oversee (with no legal or financial repercussions); the government employee who set up Hillary Clinton's improperunsecure email server did the same.

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