Senators Demand Recoupment of $10.8 Million, Dismissal of VA Officials Who Authorized Executive Bonuses

U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn speaks to the media
U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., speaks to the media during a press conference on the border, Sept. 27, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib, File)

A group of Republican senators is calling for the firing of Department of Veterans Affairs officials who authorized $10.8 million in incentive bonuses to senior VA executives last year, funding that was intended to be used to retain employees in critically understaffed jobs.

The dozen senators, led by Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and including three additional members of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, sent a letter to VA Secretary Denis McDonough Tuesday pressing for the dismissal of those responsible and said the VA must do more to recoup all the funds. They specifically requested the immediate dismissal of Under Secretary for Health Dr. Shereef Elnahal, Under Secretary for Benefits Joshua Jacobs and Deputy Secretary Tanya Bradsher.

The lawmakers also implored the VA to "take swift action to recoup" the bonuses "improperly awarded to executives" who did not meet the criteria for "high demand skills."

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"The egregious handling of critical skill incentives (CSIs) and the subsequent lack of accountability demand immediate and decisive action to restore integrity and trust within the VA," the senators wrote.

The VA announced in September that it erroneously had paid senior executives at the department's headquarters millions of dollars in the so-called critical skill incentives, or bonuses. A subsequent investigation, released in May by the VA Office of Inspector General found that 182 senior executives received nearly $11 million in bonuses, ranging in size from about $39,000 to more than $100,000 for seven executives in the Veterans Health Administration, or VHA.

According to the report, the under secretaries for health and benefits proceeded with the awards despite the concerns of the department's human resources officers and other staff.

The letter marks the first call from lawmakers for the dismissal of officials involved, although after R. James Mitchell, the VA Office of Inspector General’s assistant inspector general for special reviews, published his report, the House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman, Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., released a statement expressing outrage at the decision.

"During oversight visits across the country, we have consistently heard from VA police officers, medical supply technicians, housekeepers, and other VA staff about the need for VA to better retain quality employees. Instead of using all of the critical skill incentives to do this, VA inappropriately used the money to line the pockets of VA executives to the detriment of VA's workforce and the veterans they serve," Bost said. "It appears like this was a calculated effort by senior VA leadership including Under Secretary for Health Dr. Elnahal and Under Secretary for Benefits Jacobs."

Shortly after the VA revealed the payments, Bost; House Veterans Affairs Committee ranking member Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif.; and the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., demanded additional information on the payments.

"We write to express our disappointment at the Department of Veterans Affairs' misuse of the critical skill incentive authority," they wrote. "Contrary to congressional intent, incentives were used to boost pay of senior executives at VA rather than bolster staffing for critical shortage positions requiring highly skilled individuals."

Following the release of the IG report, VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes said the department took immediate action after identifying the error, canceled the bonuses and began efforts to recoup the payments.

The VA also instituted "additional reviews and stronger controls for all CSIs awarded to all career senior executives," Hayes said.

"Secretary McDonough has made clear from the beginning that he takes responsibility. As soon as VA identified this error, we immediately took steps to address it -- and we reported the matter to the inspector general for review. We commit to veterans that we will learn from this error and fix it, as we have already begun to do," Hayes wrote in a statement.

In addition to Blackburn, the following senators signed the letter: Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala.; Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska; Rick Scott, R-Fla.; Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo.; Bill Hagerty, R-Tennessee; Bill Cassidy, R-La.; Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; Steve Daines, R-Mont.; Ted Cruz, R-Texas; and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa.

The group said that the VA must demonstrate its commitment to upholding high standards of accountability.

"This blatant misuse of taxpayer funds is not just a breach of public trust but also a disservice to the courageous men and women who have selflessly served the nation," they wrote.

In response to questions about the letter, VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes reiterated what he said in September following the announcement of the bonuses, noting that as soon as the VA identified the error it “immediately took steps to address it.”

“Secretary McDonough has made clear from the beginning that he takes responsibility for this issue and has confidence in his leadership team,” Hayes said in a statement Tuesday. 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a response from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Related: Documents Show $43.5 Million in PACT Act Bonuses Plus Pay Raises for VA Human Resources Staff

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