An Illinois Democrat is calling on Secretary of Veterans Affairs R. James Nicholson to resign for having paid bonuses to senior federal workers who were responsible for a $1 billion shortfall in the VA budget.
“For the health and well-being of every current and future veteran, Secretary Nicholson should step down immediately,” said Rep. Phil Hare, D-Ill., an Army Reserve veteran.
Hare, a member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, isn’t the first lawmaker to call on Nicholson, a decorated Vietnam veteran and former Republican National Committee chairman, to resign.
But Nicholson has survived worse blows that this — such as the loss of personal information on 26 million people last year and claims that the VA is not fully prepared to handle Iraq and Afghanistan combat casualties — and his payment of bonuses is not universally despised, even among Democrats.
Hare, who was the architect behind a May 1 letter signed by 44 members of Congress asking for more employees at walk-in veterans clinics, said veterans deserve better.
“Veterans deserve a secretary that will fight for them, not use his or her authority to advance an ideological agenda,” Hare said. “Our veterans have suffered tremendous setbacks on Secretary Nicholson’s watch. After presiding over a $1 billion shortfall, a backlog of 600,000 disability cases, staffing shortages at vet centers, two security breaches that jeopardized the personal information of our veterans, and now, lavish bonuses to the very VA officials responsible for the whole mess, it is time to say enough is enough.”
While Hare, a longtime aide to former Rep. Lane Evans, D-Ill., called for Nicholson’s resignation, the chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee said he was not concerned that the VA had paid bonuses. But he did question their distribution.
Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, said Monday that he had no problem with paying big bonuses to VA workers, who he thinks are very dedicated. But, like Hare, Akaka said he was not certain that senior members of the budget staff at the VA deserved bonuses averaging $33,000 — about 20 percent of their annual salaries — when the VA had a major budget crisis because costs were underestimated. Akaka also noted that employees in Washington, D.C., received bigger average payments than VA workers outside of D.C., implying an “entitlement for the most centrally placed or well-connected staff,” Akaka told the Associated Press.
Also receiving a top bonus was the deputy undersecretary for benefits, who helps manage a disability claims system that has a backlog of cases and delays averaging 177 days in getting benefits to injured veterans, the Associated Press reported.
VA spokesman Matt Burns said the VA did nothing wrong.
“VA and its leaders are committed to providing the best possible care and services to our nation’s veterans,” Burns said in a statement. “To best fulfill that commitment, VA needs to be able to retain knowledgeable and professional career civil servants. VA often must compete with significantly higher private-sector salaries to keep its career executive leaders.” The performance raises are authorized by Congress, he said.
Burns also defended Nicholson. “Nobody cares more about veterans than Secretary Nicholson,” Burns said. “He’s a Vietnam veteran, the son of a veteran, the father of a veteran, a brother of veterans, and an uncle to veterans. His is a military family. Secretary Nicholson’s efforts to serve his fellow veterans will not be deterred by partisan posturing and personal attacks.
VA officials told the AP that the department’s Washington-based jobs are more difficult, often involving the management of several layers of divisions.
In 2006, the VA officials receiving top bonuses included Rita Reed, the deputy assistant secretary for budget, and William Feeley, a former VA network director who is now deputy undersecretary for health for operations and management, the AP reported.
The VA’s bonus payments also were supported by Jeffrey Phillips, a spokesman for the Republican members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “The ability of VA to provide veterans with high-quality health care and accurate, timely benefits depends on employees who provide quality work at all levels,” Phillips said. “Bonuses must reflect performance — the higher the bonus, the more performance we expect.”
Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman, who has called on Nicholson to resign in the past, did not endorse Hare’s new call for Nicholson to step down, but said he also questions the bonuses.
“This nation’s veterans’ health care system is strained to the breaking point,” Filner said. “I do not understand how an under-funded agency has the resources to award a generous bonus package of $3.8 million to its employees at the same time it shoulders a backlog of 600,000 claims and asks veterans to wait months for necessary medical care.”
Over the last two years, the VA has faced an almost $2 billion shortfall, largely because it had not fully taken into account the cost of helping returning war veterans, Filner said. “It concerns me that the same officials that miscalculated the needs of our veterans were awarded with significant bonuses,” he said.
Filner said his committee’s oversight and investigations panel will review the bonuses.
Filner was among those who called for Nicholson to resign last May when the VA temporarily lost personal data on more than 26 million veterans, service members and their families after a computer and storage devices were stolen from the home of a VA employee. Filner said at the time that Nicholson was not taking enough responsibility for the loss, and that resigning would be a sign of accountability.
The White House came to Nicholson’s support, with White House spokesman Tony Snow saying that the veterans’ secretary wasn’t going to quit.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.