Area congressmen Wednesday urged the Department of Veterans Affairs to issue its long-awaited report on mismanagement and misconduct at the Philadelphia regional office, after results of the probe began to seep out and stir new questions and accusations.
A top VA official visited the office Wednesday and said the agency had already implemented many of the recommendations expected within a week from the department's Office of Inspector General. But leaks this week of portions of its report, and of material gathered by a congressional committee, have rekindled the focus on the Germantown-based facility.
"Leaks like this show that it is past due for the release of this report and highlight the urgency for Congress to find solutions to fix the repeated manipulation of documents and records and mismanagement at the Philadelphia Regional Office," Rep. Ryan Costello (R., Pa.) said Wednesday.
On Tuesday, The Inquirer reported 35 steps the inspector general's office is expected to recommend to fix a laundry list of problems including shoddy record-keeping, inadequate security, and misdated claims that made a backlog appear smaller than it was.
The Germantown facility - which oversees benefits for 825,000 veterans in eastern Pennsylvania, South Jersey, and Delaware and also houses one of the nation's three Veterans Affairs pension centers - was found in a June inspection to have dozens of mail bins brimming with claims dating back to 2011 and benefits that had been paid twice.
In a congressional hearing last week, VA deputy inspector general Richard Griffin said Philadelphia's problems were among the worst to emerge from a slew of whistle-blower complaints nationwide last year.
"How it compares to other facilities? It's very bad," Griffin said when asked about Philadelphia before the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
"If you had a checklist of possible problem areas . . . you could have checked just about every one of them that came to our attention in Philly," he said. "Misplaced mail. Unprocessed claims. There were issues in the veterans service center. They've got an insurance center up there, they've got two call centers - we had issues in all of those locations."
Congressional Republicans have been at the forefront of criticizing the VA and its internal review process.
"Since allegations of impropriety emerged last year, the VA has been uncooperative and unresponsive," Rep. Pat Meehan (R., Pa.) said in a statement Wednesday. "That must stop. Secretary McDonald must hold those responsible accountable and take corrective action."
Rep. Jeff Miller (R., Fla.), who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, has also raised questions about the salary and "relocation payments" to the new director of the Philadelphia office, Diana Rubens.
Rubens, who was a senior executive in the D.C. office when she was tapped in June to take over the troubled Philadelphia branch, received more than $288,000 in relocation expenses.
"The government shouldn't be in the business of doling out hundreds of thousands in cash to extremely well-compensated executives just to move less than three hours down the road," Miller said.
VA spokesman Steve Westerfeld on Wednesday confirmed the payout and said it was appropriate. "Ms. Rubens is one of [the Veterans Benefits Administration's] most experienced and highly skilled senior leaders, having led the operations of VBA's entire field organization for many years," he said.
Under federal regulations, an agency can pay a variety of costs associated with reassigning an employee, including moving, closing costs, and a per-diem allowance for meals and temporary lodging for the employee's household.
Cheri Cannon, a Washington lawyer who works on federal employment and ethics cases, said the payments sound reasonable.
"It's not surprising and not excessive," she said. "It is to encourage people to relocate to jobs that no one wants or are difficult to fill."
Representatives of the local office have declined to discuss the probe this week, except to say that the office "is working closely with the Office of Inspector General" on its report and will not comment until it is released. About a half-dozen staffers approached as they left the Philadelphia office Wednesday declined to comment, saying they had been told not to talk to reporters.
Local VA officials said they were already addressing many of the policy changes recommended in the report.
"By the time the IG report is released, people will see that 90 to 95 percent of the report will long have been resolved or is in aggressive process of resolution," Allison A. Hickey, undersecretary for benefits services, told the Associated Press on Wednesday.
The national office on Wednesday instituted new standardized forms for veterans filing claims and appeals. In a memo to staff this week, Rubens hailed that change as "a new era."
The VA has also convened an administrative investigation board of high-level officials from around the country to investigate whether employees and supervisors in Philadelphia deliberately misused a 2013 policy memo in order to re-date some veterans' benefits claims to reduce the appearance of a backlog.
That board first met Monday, raising concerns from the union that represents VA workers.
Joe Malizia, president of Local 940 of the American Federation of Government Employees, wrote to members this weekend that they could face discipline if they did not cooperate with the inquiry.
"I strongly encourage you not to meet with the AIB without having a Union Rep with you. You need someone in attendance with you during this process who is on YOUR side," he wrote.
The report also is expected to recommend that Rubens "hold staff accountable" for altering results of internal quality reviews, according to a draft list obtained by The Inquirer. The audit found 53 cases where such reviews had been altered.
Cannon, the Washington lawyer, said the problems documented in Philadelphia; Oakland, Calif.; and other VA offices indicate a bigger institutional problem than these individual audits can address.
She echoed a sentiment expressed by some employees at the Philadelphia office this week: that the roots of the problems have been identified, but not fixed.
"You have the same pattern of behavior by very different people. To me, that's a cultural problem. They've been allowed to get away with it for so long," Cannon said. "You need to stop with the recommendations and start with the action."