Outcry prompts VA to review local official's presidential award

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After a growing chorus of congressmen, veterans, U.S. Veterans Affairs employees and family of victims of a Legionnaires' outbreak in Pittsburgh expressed their outrage, the VA said late Friday that it is reviewing a presidential award and bonus given to a regional director three days after a federal report blamed lax management for the outbreak.

Though the VA was silent about the award and $62,895 bonus since the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette first asked about it on Wednesday, it commented Friday about the Presidential Distinguished Rank Award given to regional director Michael Moreland at a black-tie dinner in Washington, D.C., on April 26.

"VA is committed to providing the high quality care that veterans have earned and deserve," national VA spokesman Mark Ballesteros said in an emailed statement. "VA is conducting a review of the nomination of this Presidential Rank Award recipient and will take any appropriate action when that review is complete."

That statement came after two area congressmen, the American Legion, the head of a union representing VA employees and the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee all issued statements in the previous 24 hours, joining victims' families in condemning the award and bonus, and calling for the VA to rescind both.

"The anguish these families are experiencing is still very fresh and indeed will never disappear," U.S. Reps. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, and Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, wrote in a letter they sent U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki on Friday. "Giving a taxpayer-funded bonus to the VISN [regional] Director would be tremendously insensitive and offensive to these victims. Indeed, as taxpayers, it is their money you are directing to Mr. Moreland. We urge you to do what is just and rescind this bonus now, Mr. Secretary."

The congressmen also asked Mr. Shinseki to release information about all executive bonuses at the Pittsburgh and regional VA, as well as all the nominating documents related to Mr. Moreland's receipt of the Presidential Distinguished Rank Award, the highest award that a federal executive can receive from the government.

They and others see Mr. Moreland's award and bonus as, at best, bad timing, coming as the Pittsburgh VA, which he oversees and used to direct, continues to try to figure out what exactly happened that led to the outbreak at the Pittsburgh Veterans Affairs buildings in 2011 and 2012 that sickened 22 veterans and killed at least five of them.

The VA's own inspector general released a report on the outbreak April 23 that found that systemic failures in the Pittsburgh VA allowed the outbreak to occur and flourish over the two years before it was brought under control in November 2012.

It was first made public by the Pittsburgh VA on Nov. 16, when the VA put out a news release saying that four people had gotten sick and all had recovered. Over the next two months, though, it became clear that there were many more people who had gotten sick and, as first reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, some of them had died.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who chairs the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, also called on the VA to "recoup" Mr. Moreland's bonus.

The national commander of the American Legion, James E. Koutz, said in a statement: "It's astonishing the VA IG report would find a specific facility failed to follow long-existing guidelines which resulted in the death of five veterans, and yet within a week's time the Director of that region should be singled out for the government's highest employee honor. It defies all logic."

An Obama administration official told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the list of awardees was finalized and approved, and the VA was told Mr. Moreland was a winner, on Sept. 30, 2012 -- a little more than two weeks before the Legionnaires' outbreak became known.

That differs from the time line given to the Post-Gazette by Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, a nonprofit group that hosts the annual banquet at which the Rank awards are given each year.

Ms. Bonosaro said the SEA did not get a list of winners until January this year, and it was her understanding that that list was not finalized until November.

Mr. Moreland's Distinguished Rank Award came with a certificate signed by President Barack Obama, a gold pin, and a bonus equal to 35 percent of his annual salary. Mr. Moreland makes $179,700 a year, which means he received an additional $62,895 this year.

The Distinguished Rank Award is only awarded to up to 1 percent of senior federal executives each year -- only 54 won it this year out of about 7,000 senior federal executives -- and is intended as a career award for notable accomplishments.

The Rank awards also include a Meritorious Award, which comes with a 20 percent bonus, for those who are nominated for the Distinguished Award, but don't make the cut. Mr. Moreland won the Meritorious Award twice, in 2002 and 2009. It is not known what his salaries were in those years or what his bonuses then amounted to.

On Thursday, J. David Cox Sr., the national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, a union that represents many of the Pittsburgh VA's employees, renewed the union's call for Mr. Moreland to be fired in the wake of the revelation of this latest bonus and the outbreak, saying the award and bonus was "a kick in the teeth to the victims' families and hospital employees who were kept in the dark."

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Sean D. Hamill: shamill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2579. First Published May 3, 2013 8:15 PM


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