WASHINGTON – Top St. Paul Veterans Benefit Administration executive Kimberly Graves failed to appear at a hearing Wednesday where House members hoped to grill her about a report alleging that she used the office for personal financial gain.
The row of empty seats in the front row of the hearing room — Graves and four others rejected the committee’s request to appear — sparked the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs to unanimously agree to take the rare step of issuing subpoenas forcing the executives to face questions Nov. 2.
A frustrated U.S. Rep. Tim Walz urged his colleagues to support the subpoenas.
“We needed answers today on this report and we weren’t going to get them,” said Walz, a Minnesota Democrat and member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. He said the report “undermines the morale of both veterans and the employees who are doing their job. … It is very frustrating to me. That office, the Veterans Benefits office in St Paul, was consistently one of the best in the country if not the best … and then you have this type of activity.”
In September, the VA inspector general found Graves “inappropriately used her position of authority” to transfer herself in 2014 from an East Coast office, where she was responsible for 16 regional offices in 14 states, to St. Paul, where she had much less responsibility.
Investigators also allege that Graves forced the executive holding the St. Paul position to relocate and then volunteered to fill it once he was reassigned.
Despite the dramatically reduced workload, Graves retained her $173,949 annual salary. Investigators also found the VA paid $129,467 in moving expenses for her to move from Philadelphia to St. Paul.
The inspector general’s findings on Graves and another top Veterans Benefit Administration executive facing similar allegations were forwarded to federal prosecutors in September for possible criminal charges.
The issue is blossoming into a small war between the Department of Veterans Affairs and the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. VA officials instructed Graves and the others to not show up Wednesday, setting the stage for a dramatic showdown. Officials promised Congress last month they were embarking on a 30-day review of all procedures and offered Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs Sloan Gibson to testify instead.
Earlier this week, the department announced that it would stop offering the special relocation program that Graves participated in, which pays employees if they can’t sell their house in the event of a job transfer.
VA officials say they ended the program as a result of a review sparked by the inspector general’s report.
In a letter to the committee, Gibson asked the House members for patience.
“I ask simply that the committee wait until the appropriate time to question witnesses,” Gibson said, citing the ongoing internal investigation. “The (inspector general) report is not evidence, but simply the investigators’ summary of what they believed the evidence to show.”
Former Undersecretary Allison Hickey also had been invited to testify, but she resigned last week.
“I think it’s noted that we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing,” Walz said. “An undersecretary is no longer an undersecretary.”
He said he hoped by Nov. 2, which gives the VA a full 30 days to respond to the investigation, the committee will know more. Walz pledged to resolve the matter so that it doesn’t become a wider blemish on all VA employees.
“We will have a lot of resolution,” Walz said. “It’s frustrating.”
Allison Sherry • 202-383-6120