Daily Montanan: Tester and Moran lead bipartisan group of senators denouncing improper payments to VA officials

by Rachel Mipro

Kansas GOP Sen. Jerry Moran is among a bipartisan group of federal lawmakers demanding more accountability from the Department of Veterans Affairs as fresh details emerge in the improper distribution of millions of dollars to senior-level personnel.

In September of 2023, the department acknowledged funds set aside for employee retention and recruitment were given to ineligible senior executives. A new detailed report released May 9 showed that added up to $10.8 million of the benefits, known as Critical Skills Incentive payments, went to 182 senior executive employees, ranging from approximately $39,000 to over $100,000 per person.

According to the report, the VA later canceled the payments, notified Congress and had the VA Office of Inspector General review the handout. The inspector general’s office found breakdowns in leadership, a lack of transparency and communication and failure to detect legal issues all led to the “improper” payments, the report states.

Moran joined forces with Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, and 11 other lawmakers Thursday to speak against the Department of Veteran Affairs’ “flagrant misuse of recruitment and retention incentives.”

Following the first report in 2023, House and Senate lawmakers on VA-focused committees, including Moran, sent a letter demanding more due diligence, oversight and planning from the department.

The 2024 letter sent to Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough followed similar lines.

“VA’s flagrant misuse of recruitment and retention incentives intended to improve the provision of health care and benefits for veterans by bolstering VA’s front-line workforce is unacceptable and deeply concerning,” wrote the senators in a letter. “The use of this important authority to instead increase the salaries of executives in VACO is unethical, a violation of VA policy, and in direct opposition to the intent of Congress.”

Critical Skill Incentives were established through the 2022 PACT Act, which helped veterans exposed to burn pits and other harmful chemicals receive healthcare and compensation. The benefits are meant to attract highly-skilled employees to strengthen the VA workforce.

The majority of erroneous bonus recipients, 81%, were senior executive service employees at the Veterans Health Administration. The rest of the recipients were Veterans Benefits Administration executives.

“While Congress will continue to conduct vigorous oversight and enforce Congressional intent in these and all matters, accountable leadership cannot be legislated,” the senators wrote. “In an effort to regain the public’s trust, VA must take aggressive steps to ensure transparency and accountability throughout the enterprise.”

Fellow Sens. Patty Murray, John Boozman, Sherrod Brown, Bill Cassidy, Richard Blumenthal, Thom Tillis, Mazie Hirono, Kevin Cramer, Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema and Angus King signed onto the letter.