WASHINGTON – Kimberly Graves took the Fifth.

Graves, a high-ranking official from the St. Paul office of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, faced a House panel Monday night to respond to charges that she improperly — and perhaps illegally — gamed the civil service system.

She refused to answer based on her constitutional right to avoid self-incrimination.

Graves, who failed to appear voluntarily on Oct. 21, was subpoenaed by the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs to answer charges that she used her government job for personal gain.

Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., called the behavior an expensive waste of taxpayer dollars.

An inspector general's report said Graves convinced a colleague to give up a post in St. Paul that she then filled herself. The job reduced her responsibilities but continued to pay her a $173,949 annual salary. The new job triggered a move from Philadelphia to Minnesota that cost taxpayers $129,467 in relocation expenses.

"The report is damaging," Miller said before swearing in Graves and five other VA employees referenced in the inspector general's report. The inspector general made a criminal referral of Graves' behavior to the U.S. attorney's office for possible prosecution. Miller said the VA offered only a two-sentence summary of what its witnesses would testify to. He expressed frustration with what he called a "runaround."

Graves refused to answer more than a dozen of Miller's questions, as did Diana Rubens, who, like Graves, has been referred for possible criminal prosecution. Rubens received $288,000 in moving expenses to go from a job in Washington to one in Philadelphia. She makes $181,497 a year.

The committee dismissed both women after 40 minutes because they refused to answer questions.

Allison Hickey, the former undersecretary of VA for benefits, failed to show up at the committee for a second time. She was not subpoenaed because she is now a private citizen. Hickey resigned amid the charges of improper behavior against Graves and Rubens, who worked as senior managers in the benefits section.

Other VA witnesses did answer questions. Antoine Waller, who had the St. Paul job that Graves eventually took, said he felt pressured to transfer to Baltimore. He told the committee he was reassigned, but received a relocation incentive and salary increase for a lateral move.

The hearing room in the House Cannon Office Building was tense as committee members peppered VA witnesses with questions and criticism.

"Don't expect the VA to get the benefit of the doubt in this environment," Rep. Tim Walz, DFL-Minn., told the agency's officials. Walz said reporters and the public have trouble getting information from VA officials. They are forced to file Freedom of Information Requests rather than speak to staff members.

Amid the scandal, relations between the VA and the committee have soured considerably. The unwillingness of VA to produce witnesses voluntarily led to unprecedented subpoenas.

VA officials said the agency has recommended Graves and Rubens for administrative punishments. They declined to make the sanctions public pending an appeals process.

Linda Halliday, VA's deputy inspector general, said what would be most effective in keeping what had happened from being repeated was "holding people accountable." She said the Department of Justice has yet to decide whether to prosecute Graves and Rubens.

Meanwhile, VA has frozen the transfer program that led to Graves' and Ruben's alleged misbehavior. Miller welcomed the news, saying there had been "gross" abuse.

Jim Spencer • 202-383-6123