Wednesday, September 23, 2009. Chaos and violence continue, an inquiry into the death of an Iraqi in British custody resumes, the US Congress hears how th VA regularly employes friends and family and violates every ethical rule -- as well as labor laws -- on the book, the VA's prescription mail program has little to no oversight, CBS Evening News wins an Emmy for veterans coverage, and more.
"This is a hearing on SES bonuses and other administrative issues at the US Department of Veterans Affairs," US Rep Harry Mitchell explained as he brought the US House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing to order this morning. The SES bonuses? Bonuses awarded by the VA. Are they being awarded fairly? What's the process? Who's overseeing? In addition, there is concern over hiring practices including issues of nepotism. "Since 2007," US House Rep John Hall said, "I have been -- and this committee has been -- deeply concerned about this issue of bonus awards at the Department of Veterans Affairs. I hope that this hearing will demonstrate the steps that the VA has taken to make bonuses about rewarding excellence not about helping out friends or families."
At a time when the country's experiences an economic crisis, the bonus issue has already gotten headlines in the corporate world. Now it comes to the public sector and does so at a time when many are surprised top officials in the VA still have jobs with all the problems veterans face attempting to access care. Hall put it more nicely.
US House Rep John Hall: Recent news articles and reports from the VA's Inspector General have shed light on rampant nepotism and abuse by those in a position of power. The Associated Press detailed an embarrassing episode in which a VA employee, having an affair with their superior, was reinbursed for 22 flights between Florida and Washington. One office at the VA received $24 million in bonuses over a two year period. $24 million is a lot of money in this economic climate, with many veterans living on an ever tightening budget, and it's irresponsible for us to allow this to continue without taking a careful look at who is earning the bonuses and who is not. As many of you know, I introduced a bill in the last Congress that required no bonuses to be paid out to senior VA officials until the claims backlog was under 100,000 claims. I think we can all agree that our first priority is to the veterans that served our country and paid the price. In this Congress, I'm considering other ways to make sure that bonuses are awarded fairly and within reason and, to me, an increasingly backlog indicates that there are some at VA who should not be receiving bonuses?
Today's hearing follows multiple reports of veterans struggling to get needed care. Friday, Tom Philpott (Stars and Stripes) reported on a forum and noted Army Cpl Kevin Kammerdiener's mother Leslie Kammerdienr explaining how her son, a veteran of both the Iraq War and the Afghanistan War, suffers when attempting to receive care:
One of their worst experiences occurred Labor Day weekend last year when she and Kevin, who was severely burned and lost the left side of his brain to an explosion, arrived at the VA Polytrauma Center in Tampa, Fla., for follow-up treatment and no one knew he was coming.
"We had no medications for him. We had no bed for his burned body and we had no food for his feeding tube -- for 30 hours," Leslie said. "My son suffered for 30 hours because this system was not ready."
Just a week ago, she said, Kevin signaled that he wanted to take his own life by hanging. She called the VA hospital for help.
"Days went by and nobody called me." Finally, she confronted VA doctor at a social event "and said, 'Look, you guys have to help us ... I'm not trained. I'm not a nurse. I'm not a neurosurgeon. I'm not a psychologist. I'm not a therapist. I'm just a mom. And I don't have any help with this'."
Elaine noted that article on Friday and observed how common these type of stories are, "At a certain point, I don't think you can be immune to these stories (nor do I believe you should), but I do think it gets to a level where you can no longer pretend that it's an isolated incident or a series of isloated incidents. The VA isn't doing their job. Why is that? It goes to the top and it goes to a disrespect of veterans at the top."
Today's hearing certainly backs that up -- as have other hearings. Subcommittee Chair Mitchell explained, "We all know that the Department of Veterans Affairs has some of the hardest working and dedicated employees; however, there are concerns about the VA bonus process and how the VA matches pay to individual and organizational performance." Again, the problem's at the top. It's not the workers having direct contact with the veterans. But there is a culture of neglect at the top, a culture of abuse as well. US tax payers fork over money for any number of things and among those things that hopefully only a small number would complain about is veterans health care. However, when the money that is supposed to go to veterans health care goes elsewhere, there's a serious problem which should result in serious investigations.
The subcommittee heard from two panels. The first panel was James O'Neill from the VA's Inspector General's Office (joined by Joseph G. Sullivan and Michael Bennett). The second panel was the VA's Deputy Secretary W. Scott Gould (joined by John Gingrich, John U. Sepulveda and Willie L. Hensley). Subcommittee Chair Mitchell put the witnesses under other before they testified.
In his opening statement, James O'Neill observed, "Federal law states that a public official may not apoint, employ, promote, advance or advocate for the appointment, employment, promotion or advancement in or to a civilian position any person who is a relative of the public official." That seems pretty clear.
But some officials at the VA seem confused. O'Neill detailed attempts by a VA official to get a contractor to hire her friend, the same official passing on "nonpublic VA procurement information" which the friend could use in seeking employment from a contractor, anoter woman working for the VA broke policies and used preferential (illegal) treatment to hire five friends, she went on to then give two of them higher pay than was warranted, a male manager used his position and influence to see that an unqualified family member was hired in the same division, he also abused his position (and the rules) by getting an additional family member appointed to the Austin Human Resource staff, another official informed her subordinates involved in hiring that she wanted her friend hired, to ensure that this friend working for a contractor was 'familiar' with the job, the official began bringing her "into government day-to-day business," closed the job because, by rules, a veteran was ahead of the friend in the relisting and then had the job relisted so her friend could reapply, three employees pushed friends to the top of the applicant pool by falsifying information and spreadsheets. Education? VA officials helped one another attend George Washington University at the tax payer expense despite the degrees not being related to their positions, they 'curiously' failed to track the spending and the Inspector General's Office had to get the information from GWU. Despite a departmental shortfall -- a known shortfall -- senior managers awarded $24 million in retention bonuses and awards over two years.
As O'Neill noted, "OI & T officials broke the rules to hire, favor and financially benefit their friends and family in so doing they wasted VA resources that could have been put to better use and they failed to ensure that the best qualified individuals were hired so veterans can receive the best possible service that they deserve and have earned."
Subcommittee Chair Harry Mitchell: Why did you go to OI & T [Office of Information & Technology]? How did you happen to pick that? Have you done other divisions or departments? Was it tipped off or what?
James O'Neill: It was an allegation that we received, sir. Specifically about certain individuals in OI & T. That launched our investigation.
Subcommittee Chair Harry Mitchell: And this is the only section that you've looked into? Was OI & T?
James O'Neill: In this matter, sir.
Subcommittee Chair Harry Mitchell: In this matter. But you don't know if nepotism or the bonuses or anything other departments you'd find the same type of behavior in other departments?
James O'Neill: That would be speculation because I don't have any data to support it. We periodically have conducted investigations relating to allegations of nepotism in the past but, frankly, I can't recall the last one we had. It's been awhile.
Subcommittee Chair Harry Mitchell: I guess I was saying that a lot of your investigations are based on somebody coming forward and allegating, making some sort of allegation of some misuse or improper procedure.
James O'Neill: Particularly administrative investigations, yes, sir.
Subcommittee Chair Harry Mitchell: What are the top three recommendations that you've made for the VA to ensure that the procedures that you've outlined and that we know that are there are actually enforced?
James O'Neill: Well in this particular matter -- uh -- we recommended that they determine and apply the appropriate administrative actions against the eight individuals that were cited in the report, that they issue bills of collection where appropriate for improper payments related to the graduate degrees in particular, determine what corrective actions would be appropriate to deal with the problems we identified during our investigation. Someone hired under an expired direct hire authority? They -- VA has to take some corrective action. Uh -- provide training on hiring and the provision of awards throughoout OI & NT. And review the use of the hiring authorities and the funding for academic degrees and retention allowances to ensure compliance with applicable standards.
Subcommittee Chair Harry Mitchell: I guess maybe you've kind of answered this but what oversight function in the VA broke down in the Human Resources process?
James O'Neill: I would say that um the leadership of OI & T did not pay adequate attention to the awards that were being distributed, the hiring practices that we cite in our report and uh and of course the payment for academic degrees so I would lay it at the feet of management of OI & T at the time and whatever oversight HR would provide would also need addressing.
Ranking Member David P. Roe was bothered by the awards and bonuses and twice noted the case of one VA new hire who had not completed her first 90 days but was given $4,500 award/bonus from a supervious who now claimed not to remember why that was. As Roe noted, when this happens, others know and it destroys morale. Roe noted that it was difficult to grasp "how this wasn't picked up," the various violations including hiring your family.
US House Rep John Hall: Does the Department have guidelines for administrative action to cover this type of behavior, for instance, hiring multiple members of one's family?
James O'Neill: Certainly, sir.
US House Rep John Hall: Good. Glad to hear it. Is there a timeline for the implementation of your recommendations by the Office of Human Resources
James O'Neill: Well as I mentioned earlier, I belive the timeline request came in to extend -- in order to, uhm, take the recommen -- the recommend action, the individual against whom the action is recommended has a period of time for an appeal so I think that the request is to allow that time to pass to provide a formal response to us. We -- I have reasion to believe this is pursuing on track.
US House Rep John Hall: I will take that -- I will take that to mean we shouldn't have to worry that the VA is looking at this with the seriousness with which the public and this committee sees it.
James O'Neill: I am absolutely confident they are looking at it with quite serious eyes.
US House Rep John Hall: What do you think is the top number one action out of your report that would improve the way bonuses are given out? We're all expressing a concern that they reflect performance rather than just being automatic, yearly, like a Christmas gift.
James O'Neill: Well we made a specific recommendation to review retention bonuses within the Office of Information and Technology. Retention bonuses make up a large portion of the "bonus" [C.I. note, he made air quotes when saying bonus] pool that is expanded in that area and perhaps elsewhere in VA. But they -- our recommendation, I think, is very specifically directed at retention bonuses. Uh, we didn't make a formal recommendation to look at, uh, awards beyond that but it would be clear to me that, after reading this report, that the current management would feel required to look at it. This is pretty appalling when you talk about a $4500 award for GS5, I've been administrating awards for a long time and we have GS13s that risk their lives and don't get anything close to that so it's glaring. I think that our report will prompt a close review of these processes.
Last week. Julia O'Malley (McClatchy's Anchorage Daily News) reported on Iraq War veteran John Mayo who was on multiple medications and was charged by the military with shoplifting -- an crime Mayo can't even remember taking place. As a result he was discharged and he and his family became homeless when the military immediately showed up, during dinner, at their base home and kicked them out. Mayo suffers from PTSD. His mother Cathy Mayo feels Iraq change her son, 'broke' him and, "What they did to him, you don't do it to a dog. I lost my son."
It's in that climate, where veterans are struggling for help and not getting it or getting the wrong kind of help and the realization that this comes down to economic issues resulting not from an attempt to spend generously on veterans or a bad economy but from abuse and misuse by the VA that Congress really needs to launch an investigation. This is a disgusting misuse of tax payer money -- and Congress controls the purse. In addition, it should be criminally prosecuted when the VA money is misused. Regardless of whether or not, for example, the money going to bonuses was from a special section of the budget and didn't take away monies already budgeted for care, it's still a misuse and it should result in criminal penalties. Not simply firing, not simply making someone pay it back. It's criminal and it should be treated as such. Bonuses are far from the VA's only problem as Congress learned on Tuesday. Before that, a correction to yesterday's snapshot. This appeared "(Ranking Member Dan Rohrabacher attempted to follow up on Berman's question and got the same run around)". That is wrong and incorrect and it is my mistake and I apologize. US House Rep Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is Ranking Member and my apologies for my mistake.
Now from yesterday's snapshot, "At a US House Veterans Subcommittee hearing today, US House Rep Debbie Halvorson declared, 'We need to make sure that we truly do care and don't just give it lip service'." As promised, we're covering yesterday's House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Health which was chaired by US House Rep Michael Michaud and the hearing was composed of two panels. The first panel was made up of Georgetown University's Jack Hoadley, Columbia University's Frank Lichtenberg, Vietnam Veterans of America's Richard F. Weidman and the National Council on Patient Information's William R. Bullman. The third panel was VHA's Michael Valentio (with Paul Tibbits and Chester Good also of the VA). The meeting explored the pharmaceutical needs of veterans and the need for the hearing was outline early on.
US House Rep Deborah Halvorson: This is one of the issues that is probably brought up more and more every time I get together with my veterans so I appreciate having the opportunity to ask questions. Many times people will come to me and say, 'How come these drugs are covered and all the sudden I get a notice saying that this will no longer be covered anymore?' So again, I thank the chairman for putting this together because this is one of those important issues that we need to get to the bottom of and make sure that we take care of our veterans. Our motto here is "If you were there, we care." And we need to make sure that we truly do care and don't just give it lip service.
Richard F. Weidman noted that the process is flawed with "most" of the decisions taking place behind closed doors which, he noted, is not how it goes at DoD. He noted that the metrics need to be reviewed and updated. The first panel was making recommendations, many of which have been made before. We'll focus on the second panel which was composed of US HHS' Iyasu Solomon, VA's Office of Inspector General's Belinda J. Finn (with Irene Barnett). VAOIG issued a report this year on the inability of the VA to track their inventory of drugs they mail out. Belinda Finn explained that the VHA and CMOP delivered "126 million prescriptions" and "We reported VHA medical facilities and CMOPs could not accurately account for non-controlled drug inventories because of inadequate inventory management practices, record keeping and inaccurate pharmacy data. VHA needs to improve its ability to account for non-controlled drugs to reduce the risk of diversion and standardize its pharmacy inventory practices among its medical facilities and CMOPs. Without improved controls, VHA cannot ensure its non-controlle drug inventories are appropriately safeguarded -- nor can VHA accurately account for these expensive inventories." We'll focus on the exchange between Finn and US House Rep Vic Snyder who is also a medical doctor.
US House Rep Vic Snyder: Ms. Finn, I need you to educate me here. Is this an inventory problem or is it a record keeping problem at the time drugs are prescribed? I mean is the -- where's the accuracy and inaccuracy? When you go in and count up the number of pills and drugs available in the storeroom, do we think that's accurage and that the record keeping was wrong? Or do we think that the record keeping is right but somehow either too many pills were sent in or some are walking out the door unannounced? Which is the problem? Or do you know?
Belinda Finn: The problem I think is we can't tell which is really accurate because the physical inventories --
US House Rep Vic Snyder: Is different than the record keeping.
Belinda Finn: -- are different from the records. We know there are problems with the transactional records and we know there are problems with the actual taking and recording of the physical inventories.
US House Rep Vic Snyder: Now -- okay, there are problems on both ends. Now if somebody had asked me an hour ago when I got to the airport do I think that somebody could make a phone call to a VA pharmacy and say, "How many Lipitor, 40 mg, prescribed last year?" -- I would say, "Yeah, they can probably do that within an hour." But apparently that's not right. I thought because of the electronic record keeping there would be an ability to come up with those numbers fairly quickly. Is that right or wrong?
Belinda Finn: They may be able to give you an answer. I couldn't vouch for its accuracy.
US House Rep Vic Snyder: Accuracy. So let's suppose it was inaccurate. Where would the inaccuracy come from? Prescriptions are written and they never get sent to a patient? What would be . . .
Belinda Finn: Part of the problems that we saw is that the pharmacy may dispense pills using a reprint function which may not actually hit the pharmacy records so there could be prescriptions dispensed that aren't being recorded because they're using an informal method.
US House Rep Vic Snyder: Now in terms of the inventory, you had quite a range of potential problems, right? Do we think at any time that this interferes with veterans getting medication because of the inaccuracies or inefficienes? Or veterans getting prescriptions, they're told by the pharmacist, 'Well this one isn't in, we didn't order it in a timely fashion' or not?
Belinda Finn: No, sir, we didn't see any evidence of any harm to veterans because the pills were not available.
US House Rep Vic Snyder: Well I don't necessarily mean harm. I mean just kind of inconvenience?
Belinda Finn: No, none of that either.
US House Rep Vic Snyder: Okay, so then it becomes an issue of cost.
Belinda Finn: It becomes an issue of cost and accountability.
I don't see any coverage of yesterday's hearing. (There's a lot more to cover than what we emphasized with one highlighted exchange.) The press needs to utilize their oversight power. And when the press is suffering from bad images, you'd think they'd run with an issue like this. Not only does it improve their images, it can result in awards. CBS Evening News with Katie Couric just won an Emmy for Outstanding Investigative Journalism in a Regularly Scheduled Newscast. The award was for the series of reports on veteran suicides. Armen Keteyian, Pia Malbran, Keith Summa, Rick Kaplan, Ariel Bashi, Craig Crawford, Matt Turek and Catherine Landers worked on that series (Armen was the on air journalist for the reports). From their award winning coverage, CBS Evening News notes these reports:
Suicide Epidemic Among Veterans
Veteran Suicides: How We Got The Numbers
Congress Vows Action On Vets' Suicides
VA Admits Vet Suicides Are High
VA Says E-mail Was "Poorly Worded"
VA Official Grilled About E-Mails
Soldier Suicide Attempts Skyrocket
Turning to some of today's reported violence . . .
Sahar Issa (McClatchy Newspapers) reports a Baghdad sticky bombing targeting "a senior tribal leader" that injured his bodyguard and a Mosul roadside bombing which claimed the lives of 3 Iraqi soldiers. Reuters notes another Mosul roadside bombing which claimed the life of 1 police officer and left another wounded.
Sahar Issa (McClatchy Newspapers) reports a Mosul attack in which 1 police officer was killed and another left injured.
Sahar Issa (McClatchy Newspapers) reports 1 corpse was discovered in Mosul home with "signs of stabbing".
In England today, the inquiry into the death of Iraqi Baha Mousa (while in British custody) resumed. (See Monday's snapshot for opening remarks.) Sangita Myska (BBC News) reports that Daoud Mousa, Baha's father, declared today that "he had reported Queen's Lancashire Regiment members for breaking into a safe" and that he believed his son may have been killed in retaliation. Baha died September 16, 2003. Adam Gabbatt (Guardian) explains Baha's father was forced out of the police by Saddam Hussein and that he and his family saw the arrival of British troops in 2003 as a good thing, "We welcomed the troops; we gave them flowers. They were walking about everywhere in the markets, quite free of any concern. That was in light of the good relationship between the people of Basra and the British troops." The Telegraph of London emphasizes that Daoud saw "three or four British soldiers breaking into a safe and taking out packets of money which they stuffed into the pockets of their uniform and inside their shirts." The London Evening Standard also emphasizes that aspect of the testimony and adds that Daoud lodged a complaint with a British officer whom he knew as "Lieutenant Mike," following that, Daoud saw the hotel employees on the floor face down, including his son, "I believe that my son may have been treated worse than other people because I had made a complaint to Lieutenant Mike that money was being stolen from the hotel safe."
Daoud Salim Mousa al-Maliki testified through an interpreter. He spoke of what he encountered when he went to Ibn Al Haitham Hotel looking for his son Baha. He denied that Ba'athist were using the hotel to meet up -- stating he would have known if that was taking place as would his son.
Daoud Salim Mousa al-Maliki: I used to stop at the hotel to take him home with me because each morning I had to drop one of my daughters to school, which was not far from the hotel, and she was taking her final exams at the time.
Gerald Elias: So on this morning, at about what time did you arrive at the hotel?
Daoud Salim Mousa al-Maliki: It was eight or less than eight.
Gerald Elias: When you approached the hotel, as you have said in your statement, did you see the presence of British soldiers outside?
Daoud Salim Mousa al-Maliki: I noticed some British vehicles outside the hotel and I saw a crowd in the street. There was one soldier standing guard at the gate.
Gerald Elias: As you approached the hotel, did you look through the hotel window and see something inside?
Daoud Salim Mousa al-Maliki: As I approached the hotel, I saw through -- through the glass of doors of the hotel. I saw soldiers, British soldiers, breaking a safe with two points -- two poitned sides, one round pointed side and the other was broad.
Gerald Elias: How many soldiers did you see trying to break the safe?
Daoud Salim Mousa al-Maliki: I am not quite sure. Three to four.
Gerald Elias: Three to four. Did they break into the safe?
Daoud Salim Mousa al-Maliki: They broke the safe from behind and made a hole in it.
Gerald Elias: When they had made a hole, what, if anything, did the soldiers do then?
Daoud Salim Mousa al-Maliki: They reached inside from behind and took out packets of money, part of which they put in their pockets. They had side pockets in their uniform which had more than one pocket and they put the others inside their shirts on their naked body.
Gerald Elias: When you talk of packets of money, you mean, do you, packets of notes, paper money?
Daoud Salim Mousa al-Maliki: What I am talking about and what I mean is notes.
Gerald Elias: Do you remember how many soldiers were actually putting money in their pockets?
Daoud Salim Mousa al-Maliki: I didnt' focus on this side of events, but somehow I think there were three to four.
Gerald Elias: When you saw that, what did you do?
Daoud Salim Mousa al-Maliki: After I had seen that, I thought that it was a violation of English dignity and honour and the honour of English troops, so I asked a soldier standing by the door to allow me to get in as a crime had been committed inside. I did enter the hotel after that.
He recounts how he was taken to Lt Mike, given a red pen to write a statement, did so, Lt Mike called to one of the soldiers discovered money in his pocket, grabbed his gun and told him to leave the hotel. He speaks of being informed two days later that his son was dead and taken to see the body.
Gerald Elias: Did he have marks to his head and face and to his body?
Daoud Salim Mousa al-Maliki: Yes, yes, there were traces, there were marks.
Gerald Elias: How extensive were the marks and bruises about his body?
Daoud Salim Mousa al-Maliki: There is so many and so many intensive injuries and marks as a result of hardship, as a result of the violence inflicted on the body, the hitting on the body, strong hitting on the body.
There were attempt to discredit Daoud Salim Mousa al-Maliki as a witness. Repeatedly, a document was referred to, written in September 2003. Daoud Salim Mousa al-Maliki's statement says Lt Mike slapped the soldier with money in his pockets. And now he states that did not or may not have happened.
But Daoud Salim Mousa al-Maliki's statement wasn't presented. What was presented was a statement in English. He neither speaks nor reads English. He didn't write the statement. It has his signature but, as he pointed out, he was told it was a translation of the written statement he gave (in Arabic). This was repeatedly cited during questions and the point was an attempt to discredit him as a witness. It was, honestly, rather shameful. Attorneys may want to win a case but there are certain things you really shouldn't do.
A transcript to Monday's testimony is up at The Baha Mousa Public Inquiry. A transcript for today has not yet been posted but will be. (I've used a copy of the transcript and reports from friends attending the inquiry today for the snapshot.)