By Chuck Ross
A House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing was the scene of a tense exchange Wednesday as a top-ranking VA official was forced to answer questions about a $300,000 relocation package the agency gave her to take a job in Philadelphia last year.
Committee chairman Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican, grilled Diana Rubens, the current director of the Philadelphia VA Regional Benefits Office, about whether such a large payment was needed to incentivize her to move the 140 miles from Washington D.C. to Philadelphia.
“I don’t know that, sir,” Rubens said when Miller asked her during the hearing if she would have taken the Philadelphia job without the package.
It was revealed on Tuesday that Rubens’ relocation stipend included a $211,750 payment to a contractor through the VA’s Appraised Value Offer (AVO) program. Rubens was also paid $84,000 in various relocation and moving expenses in order to incentivize her to move. That portion included $30,000 in closing costs on Rubens’ new home in Pennsylvania.
The large AVO portion stemmed from the sale of Rubens’ Alexandria, Va. house. The AVO program requires relocating employees to put their home on the market for at least 60 days. But if the house doesn’t sell during that span, a third-party contractor purchases the home from the VA employee at its appraised value. The VA then pays the contractor — in this case, Brookfield GRS — 28 percent of that amount.
Rubens put her house on the market in June. It went unsold, and Brookfield GRS purchased it for $770,000 in August. The company sold the house in February for $692,500. Despite the loss on the transaction of the actual property, the company made a gross profit of around $130,000 through the AVO program. (RELATED: Congressman Calls For End To Federal Housing ‘Scheme’ That Netted Official A $288K Bonus)
In a letter to Allison Hickey, the VA undersecretary for benefits, Miller questioned Rubens’ incentive and the value of the AVO program, especially given that the VA has claimed that its inability to provide adequate health care to veterans stems, in part, from a budget shortfall.
The question Miller sought an answer to Wednesday was whether Rubens wanted to move to the Philadelphia area to be closer to her mother, sister, and other family members, who live in Wilmington, Del.
If that were the case, it would undermine the VA’s claims about the purpose of the AVO program. The agency claims that it is intended to be used to compensate skilled employees who are reluctant to move to take a new job.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Ruben — who had worked as the undersecretary for field operations in Washington D.C. — revealed that she signed a written statement asserting that she would not move to Philadelphia for the director job unless she received a relocation package.
“The re-lo package that the VA has is offered in some instances, and because it was offered to me and I thought it beneficial to help me ease that transition from one office in one city to another in an effort to be there as quickly as possible,” Rubens told Miller.
Rubens said that she has asked about relocating to Philadelphia in the past because she wanted to work in a “large and complex” office in order to advance her career. The Philadelphia office is one of the largest in the VA system. It is also mired in scandal. A recent VA inspector general report found widespread mismanagement, data manipulation, and retaliation against whistleblowers there.
“So you did not want to move unless you got a $300,000-plus relocation package to be close to your mother and your family?” Miller asked.
“No sir, that’s not the issue,” Rubens said.
“It was part of a benefit program that VA offers to ensure transition as quick and as smooth as possible to an office that needed leadership,” she added.
“So you would not have moved close to your mother, had you not gotten this package?” Miller pressed.
“I don’t know that, sir,” Rubens admitted.
“I guarantee you, I would move close to my mom without a $300,000 relocation package,” Miller said, preceding several seconds of uncomfortable silence.
Miller circled back to requests Rubens has made in the past about taking a job in Philadelphia. Rubens said she had discussed the possibility years ago with a previous boss.
Asked by Miller if she would have moved to Philadelphia then without the $300,000 relocation payment, Rubens demurred.
“I can’t answer that, sir. I don’t know I would or wouldn’t have done many years ago,” she said. Asked how long ago that conversation took place, Rubens said it was between three and five years ago.
Miller stumped Rubens towards the end of his line of questioning. She said that she chose the option of entering the AVO program in order to ensure she could made the move to Philadelphia “as expeditiously as possible.”
“So, you couldn’t have moved quickly without $300,000 relocation package?” Miller asked. Rubens appeared caught off guard and stayed silent for several seconds. Miller jumped in and yielded the floor to Florida U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, the ranking Democrat on the VA committee.
Brown was clearly bothered by the previous exchange, telling Miller, “Mr. Chairman, I just want you to know I’m a little uncomfortable with this line of questioning.”
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