Congressman: Philly VA leaders wanted to monitor his staff on unannounced visit

Rep. Jeff Miller (left), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, greeting whistle-blowers Kristen Ruell and Ronald Robinson before Monday's hearing. Miller said his staff encountered interference.
Rep. Jeff Miller (left), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, greeting whistle-blowers Kristen Ruell and Ronald Robinson before Monday's hearing. Miller said his staff encountered interference. (CHIP SOMODEVILLA / Getty Images)
Posted: July 17, 2014

Congressional staff on an unannounced visit to the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs regional office July 2 were given work space in a room wired with an active microphone and camera, according to the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

During the same visit - made to investigate claims of mismanagement at the Germantown facility - one congressional staffer saw and snapped a picture of a note containing an offensive description of a woman on her team.

Rep. Jeff Miller (R., Fla.) said the note was written by the office's then-acting director, Lucy Filipov, the same administrator who directed the team to the wired room.

"Congressional staff has a constitutional responsibility to unfettered access to files, and there should be no reason that anybody would monitor their discussions," Miller said Tuesday, reiterating criticism he lodged during a contentious hearing of the House committee Monday night in Washington.

That hearing brought forward new details in the ongoing investigation of data manipulation at the city's VA office, which oversees benefits for 825,000 veterans in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey and also houses one of the country's three pension management centers.

Details of the July 2 visit in Philadelphia, aired as the more-than-five-hour hearing stretched into the night, seemed to inflame existing tensions between some committee members and VA leadership.

A few lawmakers called for Diana Rubens, the director of the Philadelphia center, to be fired.

Monday was her first official day on the job.

Allison Hickey, the VA undersecretary for benefits, did not offer her own interpretation of Filipov's note.

"I will just tell you without question it is unacceptable," she said at the hearing. "And I offer on behalf of the department my sincere apologies to your staff who experienced that that day and my commitment that it will not happen again."

Walinda West, deputy director for media relations for the VA, said there was no intention to monitor or record the staffers' activities. She deferred further comment on that and the other issues to the statements made by Rubens and Hickey during Monday's hearing.

Attempts to reach Rubens and Hickey on Tuesday through VA spokespeople were unsuccessful.

Touring the office

Miller said he asked his staff to visit the city's VA center July 2 to spend a day reviewing files, meeting with employees, and touring the office. The team notified administrators they were coming about 9 a.m., then arrived about 20 minutes later, he said.

As they waited in a conference room for an administrator to greet them, one staffer got up to use the restroom, Miller said. Near the bathroom's sinks, the staffer found a yellow spiral notebook with the words "ask ignore Rory" - referencing the committee's staff director, Rory Riley - scribbled half way down the page.

Miller said the notebook belonged to Filipov, now the center's assistant director, who met with the congressional staff moments later. Filipov wrote the notes during an earlier conversation that morning with Rubens, who at the time was the Veterans Benefits Administration undersecretary for field operations.

Miller believes Rubens instructed Filipov to ignore his team's requests for information.

"The acting director was in possession of a note upon which was written ignore my staff. Am I surprised? No. Actually I'm shocked," Miller said at Monday's hearing.

The note also included two comments beside Riley's name: "arrogance" and "stick up her ass."

At the top of the paper were written and circled the last names of two whistle-blowers from the Philadelphia office, Ryan Cease and Kristen Ruell.

Ruell was one of three whistle-blowers who testified at Monday's hearing, where she voiced concerns including veterans being paid twice and dates being changed so old claims appear new.

On Tuesday, Ruell said she thought her name was included because Rubens believed she was responsible for the staffers' visit. But Ruell said she did not ask them to come.

"Any time anything negative happens at the office they just assume it's me," said Ruell, who has criticized management at her office before. "It proves the Whistleblower Act is a joke."

At the hearing, Rubens said she had told Filipov that the congressional staff might want to meet with the whistle-blowers. She said that while she did not know their names, Filipov did, and wrote them down on her notepad.

Miller said that after the staffers met with Filipov, she said they could work that day in a room on the third floor that is often used for hearings and teleconferencing. While another administrator said they could stay in the room they were in, Filipov insisted three times that they move to the other space, Miller said.

A different room

On Tuesday, he said that once in that room, the staff saw two microphones by a telephone and a camera on top of a television - all with lights indicating they were on.

He said the staffers asked to be moved to another space, and they were.

Rubens officially became the director of the Philadelphia regional office Monday and has been transitioning into that position since early June. While some members of the congressional staff called for her to be fired because of Filipov's note, at least one member disagreed.

Rep. Corrine Brown (D., Fla.) said it was inappropriate for the staffer to read the notepad in the first place.

"I hope no one ever loses their job for a note in the bathroom on a pad," she said.


tnadolny@phillynews.com

610-313-8205

@TriciaNadolny

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