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Watchdog: Accountability

Veterans Affairs spies, stonewalls on people investigating it

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Congressional staffers investigating data falsification and whistleblower retaliation at the Department of Veterans Affairs regional office in Philadelphia were given a workspace there that was wired with activated audio microphones and video cameras, the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs said Monday.

Committee investigators also glimpsed a notebook used by the agency's regional director that bore written instructions to ignore their requests for information, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said during a late-night hearing.

Your commitment is appreciated but it is not believed.

Miller, chairman of the veterans committee, said he is “shocked” by the directives from VA officials to ignore congressional investigators.

“You will not ignore this committee anymore,” Miller said to Allison Hickey, VA's under secretary for benefits, who testified at the hearing.

Miller sent two committee staff members to the Philadelphia facility July 2 to determine whether claims-processing data was being falsified to hide long delays and errors that could cost veterans the benefits they deserve because of illnesses or injuries linked to military service.

Before the meeting began, one of Miller’s staffers, Lauren Rogan, went to the bathroom, where she saw a notebook by the sink that included the phrase “ignore Rory,” a reference to her colleague Rory Riley.

Circled at the top of the page were the names of two whistleblowers who were cooperating with the committee to expose improper processing of veterans claims in a way that improved agency statistics but did not resolve the cases.

The notebook belonged to Lucy Filipov, acting director at the regional office. It apparently reflected an earlier conversation with Diana Rubens, who at the time was deputy under secretary for benefits.

After the meeting, case files and computers were placed in a room where Filipov insisted Rogan and Riley should work. As the two checked the room, they found the sound and video equipment were active, and they insisted on being moved.

The notebook page also included a disparaging remark about Riley, which particularly incensed Miller.

“I will not excuse it,” Hickey said when confronted during the hearing. “Without question, it is unacceptable.”

Miller was not impressed with the apology. “Your commitment is appreciated but it is not believed,” he said.

After the July 2 incident, Rubens visited the veterans’ committee offices and tried to “cover up” what had occurred, Miller said.

Rubens’ excuse was that the comments reflected in the note were not what she was saying, but rather comments being made by others in the department, which should be ignored, according to Miller.

Miller called Rubens’ explanation “totally implausible.”

Rubens became director of the Philadelphia office July 14. The VA’s announcement of the move from deputy under secretary did not characterize it as a demotion.

The exchange over surveillance and stonewalling was a bizarre twist in the committee's investigation into long backlogs veterans face when seeking disability compensation for service-connected medical conditions.

Whistleblowers told the committee of “gross mismanagement” and deceptive practices used at regional offices to hide the months-long delays veterans face when they file a disability claim.

Kristen Ruell, a quality review specialist in Philadelphia, said she faced retaliation after she tried to expose data manipulation, improper payments and other “gross misinterpretations of the law.”

Ruell was one of the two whistleblowers whose names were circled on the top of Filipov’s notebook.

“The VA’s problems are the result of morally bankrupt managers that through time and grade have moved up into powerful positions where they have the power to, and continue to, ruin people’s lives,” Ruell said.

Also Monday, the VA inspector general released a report that found an initiative to fast track the oldest disability claims resulted in veterans waiting longer to resolve their cases than they would have under normal procedures.

The initiative on two-year-old claims did allow VA to remove the oldest cases from its backlog statistics, thereby making its numbers look better at the expense of those seeking benefits.

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