Center wins first Pulitzer!

Black lung investigation honored

Get more award-winning investigations:

Bush appointee allows VA employee to be overpaid $41,000 and commute to D.C. from Ark.

By

 Updated:

IG report finds Department of Veterans Affairs spent ten of thousands of dollars on improper travel expenses.

Ed Andrieski/AP

The scandal-plagued Office of Information and Technology at the Department of Veterans Affairs is under a microscope again. Earlier investigations uncovered misspent travel funds, use of government property for pornography, and an illicit office romance that resulted in one official being placed on leave, with pay, for nearly two years. A new inspector general’s report reveals tens of thousands of dollars improperly spent on excess wages and travel perks.

The redacted report from October 2010, released after a Freedom of Information Act request from iWatch News, details how Charles L. Gephart was promoted to a higher-paying position in Washington, D.C., even though he continued to live in Fayetteville, Ark. This allowed Gephart, the director of IT field security operations in the Office of Information and Technology, to collect $41,330.80 more in wages than he was rightfully allowed and led him to rack up many thousands more in travel expenses for regular flights to and from D.C.

The VA’s office of inspector general has not responded to requests for a complete tally of Gephart’s travel expenses, which covered his lodging, meals, transportation, parking, taxes, and fees. But an iWatch News tally of a year’s worth of trips listed in the report found that he was reimbursed a total of $34,320.39 from August 2009 to July 2010 for his regular three- to four-day visits to Washington. Gephart was promoted into his D.C.-based director position in September 2006, so the total cost of his commute was likely much higher. His trips to Washington cost $1,800 on average, the inspector general noted.

The report also found that Gephart “had video conferencing equipment on his desk and capabilities available to him [in Fayetteville],” that would allow him to telecommute and could have made most of the Washington visits unnecessary.  Indeed, after the inspector general’s findings were published, the reporting location for Gephart’s position was changed to the Fayetteville office of the VA.

The latest allegations of wasteful spending at the VA have veterans groups concerned. “Any dollar wasted is one that can’t go towards helping veterans,” said David Autry, the spokesman for Disabled Veterans of America.

The inspector general recommended that the high-flying IT director pay back the excess wages he received, a conclusion agreed to by the VA. But a spokeswoman for the VA said Gephart recently retired, and the spokeswoman did not respond to an email inquiring about what efforts the agency was making to recover those funds and whether Gephart is on the hook for the travel costs as well.

Gephart was written up again in February 2011 for, among other things, sending sexually explicit messages using VA equipment.

The IT director told investigators that he asked Robert Howard, the VA’s assistant secretary for information and technology, about whether he would have to relocate. Howard was appointed by President George W. Bush in August 2006 despite having presided over a data breach only months earlier in which a laptop containing the personal information of 26.5 million people was stolen from a VA employee’s home, a blunder that cost the department at least $20 million.

Neither Howard, nor Gephart’s direct supervisor, former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Information Protection and Risk Management Katherine Adair Martinez, pushed for the IT director to move to D.C., he said in the report.

Gephart also endangered veterans’ personal information when his work laptop was stolen in September 2007. He had stored it in his garage one weekend and left the door ajar to keep “raccoons from causing damage,” the inspector general noted in the 2011 report. The laptop was recovered by police days later and no sensitive information was compromised.

Both Howard and Martinez were the subjects of August 2009 reports detailing extensive fraud and corruption that occurred under their watch as well as what the inspector general described as their “inappropriate personal relationship.”

Howard’s executive assistant, Jennifer S. Duncan, was accused of abusing her position to hire friends and relatives and signing off on more than $140,000 in tuition expenses so they could get graduate degrees paid for by the VA.

Howard also approved Martinez’s move to Florida, even though she spent more than 60 percent of her time working out of the D.C. office. In the first nine months after he signed off on the office change, her Washington trips cost taxpayers more than $37,000 in travel expenses.

The Bush appointee and his subordinate left the VA during or shortly after the investigation.

Howard took a senior vice president position at defense contractor Femme Comp Inc. in January 2009, before the report was released. Calls to FCI about his current employment status were not returned. Reached at home Friday, Howard refused to “discuss anybody’s personal issues.”

Martinez has not worked at the VA since September 2009, when she was placed on administrative leave. She was officially fired on Feb. 5, 2010. Then, in April 2011, an administrative judge ruled that she had not been given a chance to appeal the agency’s decision and ordered the VA to reinstate Martinez and pay her attorney’s fees and back wages. As a member of the Senior Executive Service with nearly 20 years of work experience in the public sector, she was paid between $117,787 and $177,000 in 2009 alone.

Although Martinez’s attorney, Kevin Owen, said at the time that the ruling was “bittersweet” because “she hadn't had a chance to bring her case to the public,” she declined to comment in time for publication. Martinez is again on administrative leave collecting an executive’s salary, but has not been cleared to return to work while the VA appeals her reinstatement, he said.

Gephart could not be contacted for comment. Scores of phone numbers and an email address associated with him in public databases have been disconnected or shut down.

The VA has been criticized for other commuter arrangements costly to the taxpayers.

A June VA inspector general report found that one senior employee charged the department more than $130,000 for his weekly D.C. trips. Like Gephart, the executive was ostensibly based in the District, but lived elsewhere and billed the VA for his flights and accommodations. The VA has still not released the employee’s name or confirmed that it has stopped paying his travel expenses.

Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, called that case “cause for alarm” and said it raised “questions about the soundness of basic management decisions.” He sent a letter to VA Inspector General George Opfer last week requesting an agency-wide review of the VA’s travel and office assignment policies and practices.

_Do you know a federal employee  who commutes to work by plane? Are you a government worker whose boss or coworkers are abusing official travel status or their duty station assignment? Email  tips to iWatch Reporter Corbin Hiar: chiar@iwatchnews.org