WASHINGTON (AP) — Two high-ranking officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs refused to testify Monday night at a congressional hearing on allegations that they manipulated the agency's hiring system for their own gain.
The officials, Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves, told a House committee they were asserting their Fifth Amendment rights under the Constitution to protect themselves against self-incrimination.
The VA's acting inspector general said in a report that Rubens and Graves forced lower-ranking regional managers to accept job transfers against their will. Rubens and Graves then stepped into the vacant positions themselves, keeping their pay while reducing their responsibilities, the IG said.
Rubens, director of the Philadelphia regional office for the Veterans Benefits Administration, and Graves, director of the St. Paul, Minnesota regional office for the VBA, face possible criminal prosecution.
The two women are among five high-ranking VA officials who received subpoenas to appear at Monday night's hearing conducted by the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
The panel's chairman, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., called the allegations against Rubens and Graves disturbing.
"VA exists for veterans, not for itself or the unjust enrichment of its senior employees,'' he said.
Miller called on VA to take aggressive steps to root out actions identified by the inspector general's report, hold employees accountable and "be better stewards of taxpayers' money.''
Danny Pummill, the VA's principal deputy undersecretary for benefits, said a relocation program used by Rubens and Graves to obtain more than $400,000 (all dollars US) in questionable moving expenses has been suspended.
The department is moving to impose disciplinary action against Rubens and Graves, Pummill said, but he declined to say what those actions were, citing employee confidentiality rules.
Acting Inspector General Linda Halliday said in a report 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.
Rubens and Graves kept their salaries of $181,497 and $173,949, respectively, even though the new positions they took as directors at regional offices in Philadelphia and St. Paul had less responsibility and a lower pay range than their previous positions. Rubens was a deputy undersecretary at the VA's Washington headquarters, while Graves was director of VBA's Eastern Region.
Rubens grew up near Philadelphia, while Graves has family in Minnesota, the IG's report said.
Allison Hickey, the former head of the Veterans Benefits Administration, resigned last month amid questions about a backlog in disability claims and Hickey's role in the transfers obtained by Rubens and Graves. The IG's report said Hickey and other top VA officials may have encouraged the scheme.