Honorable Few – Capt. J.J. Harris

Marine Corps League Detachment #1302

VA chief to address bonus scandal next week at House hearing

Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough will appear before House lawmakers on June 4 to testify on improper benefits awarded to dozens of senior department officials last year as congressional concerns mount regarding the unfolding scandal.

House Veterans’ Affairs Committee officials had requested that Under Secretary for Health Shereef Elnahal and Under Secretary for Benefits Joshua Jacobs — two officials at the center of the bonus issues — testify on their roles in the mistakes. Instead, McDonough will field questions from lawmakers on the errors and steps taken to correct them.

Earlier this month, a VA inspector general report criticized Elnahal, Jacobs and several other department leaders for mistakenly awarding about $11 million in cash incentives to 182 senior employees who were not eligible for the awards. McDonough, who was largely absolved in the report, has already rescinded the payments.

But that has not calmed lawmakers’ fury over the mistakes, some of whom have questioned whether the moves were made out of ignorance of the law or intentionally.

GOP senators demand firings of senior staff after VA bonus mistakes

On May 21, a dozen Senate Republicans demanded the firing of Elnahal, Jacobs and Deputy Secretary Tanya Bradsher over “the unjustified distribution of bonuses to executives.” On May 30, a bipartisan group of 13 senators — including Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont. — also called for personnel actions related to the issue.

“VA’s flagrant misuse of recruitment and retention incentives intended to improve the provision of health care and benefits for veterans by bolstering VA’s front-line workforce is unacceptable and deeply concerning,” they wrote.

The contested bonuses were part of the $117 million Critical Skill Incentive Payments program authorized by Congress two years ago. Money from that fund has been given to more than 13,000 staffers with high-demand skills in an effort to keep them in VA hospitals and benefits offices.

But lawmakers have emphasized that money was designed to retain skilled workers and not simply reward high-level executives for past success.

In a supplemental report released Thursday, the VA inspector general reported new concerns surrounding Elnahal’s involvement in awarding bonuses to 10 senior executives under his direct supervision, an additional violation of program rules.

During a press call on May 24, Elnahal told reporters that he took “full responsibility” for the mistakes and stated that his agency, along with the rest of VA, is working on “implementing the recommendations of the inspector general to make sure that this never happens again.”

McDonough in a Tuesday press conference said he still has confidence in his leadership team but is carefully reviewing the independent investigation to see whether any personnel actions are warranted.

“Responsibility for this rests with me,” he said. “I should have put this into governance to make sure everyone was tracking the rules.”

House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mike Bost, R-Ill., has called the bonus scandal “a serious problem for the second largest agency in the federal government” and vowed to press department officials for explanations and reforms in coming months.

Tuesday’s scheduled hearing is the first specifically focused on the issue, but lawmakers have hinted that more could follow depending on what the event uncovers. VA Inspector General Michael Missal is also expected to appear at the hearing.