Top executives at the Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters and in regional offices across the country routinely collected merit and other bonuses for more than five years that in some cases totaled more than $100,000, The Washington Examiner has found.
At the same time, performance at the offices they ran plummeted as more veterans waited longer for a decision on whether they will receive disability compensation for service-connected injuries and illnesses.
Even the directors of some of the worst-performing regional offices in the country collected merit bonuses between 2007 and 2011, the most recent year for which figures are available.
The biggest bonuses at the Veterans Benefits Administration, which handles disability claims, went to two of the agency's top officials. VBA Chief of Staff Lois Mittelstaedt collected performance bonuses of almost $108,000 over five years, according to a database obtained by The Washington Examiner.
Diana Rubens, the deputy undersecretary for field operations, who oversees the 57 regional offices, got almost $97,000. Both had a salary of $179,700 in 2011, the most recent year for which data was available.
VA's performance has steadily declined in the last five years. Since 2009, the average time it takes to process a disability claim has doubled, and now stands at 325 days.
Cases that have lingered more than 125 days -- and thus are officially considered "backlogged" -- have also nearly doubled from about 37 percent in 2009 to almost 71 percent today.
Nearly 800,000 veterans are awaiting an initial decision on whether they qualify for disability benefits because of service-connected conditions. (See "Making America's Heroes Wait" investigative series by The Washington Examiner's Mark Flatten.)
"VA owes every American an explanation for why it rewarded failing executives with bonuses," Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, told The Washington Examiner.
"The fact that so many VA executives collected huge performance bonuses year after year while continually failing at their jobs calls into question whether department leaders even know the meaning of the word 'accountability,'" Miller said.
"Unfortunately, it's taken the national crisis that is the benefits backlog and a media firestorm surrounding the department's bonus scandal for VA leaders to realize that rewarding failure only breeds more failure."
Miller on Wednesday introduced legislation to ban VA executive bonuses for five years.
"Until we have complete confidence that VA is holding executives accountable -- rather than rewarding them -- for their mistakes, no one should get a performance bonus," Miller said.
VA officials provided no information on salaries or bonuses, despite numerous requests by The Washington Examiner. Agency officials also refused to comment beyond issuing a written statement saying, "performance awards take into account both individual and overall organizational performance goals."
Senior VBA executives will not receive performance bonuses for the 2012 fiscal year, the VA announced after a list of payouts to top agency officials was recently leaked to the media. Money from those bonuses will be "reinvested to accelerate the elimination of the backlog," the VA statement said.
The total tab for performance bonuses paid to VA officials in the senior executive service was about $16.9 million over five years.
The Washington Examiner's analysis of pay and performance went far beyond the central office and assessed the track records of current regional office directors and other high-level administrators who received big bonuses.
There appears to be little correlation between pay and performance. For instance, one of the worst-performing regional offices is in Phoenix, where the average wait time for a veteran to get a disability rating is almost 470 days -- more than 15 months.
Sandra Flint has been director of the Phoenix regional office for about eight years. Since 2007, she has received at least $53,109 in bonuses, including more than $21,000 in merit bonuses, according to the records obtained by The Washington Examiner. Her 2011 salary was $165,300.
Since 2009, the backlog of claims in Phoenix has more than doubled and now stands at just under 80 percent. Flint did not return telephone calls seeking comment.
Another long-time regional director who has reaped big bonuses is Carl Hawkins, the top executive in the Columbia, S.C., office since about 1998. Hawkins was paid $79,275 in performance bonuses over five years, the third-highest among current regional office directors. His pay in 2011 was $165,300.
Since 2009, the backlog of disability claims in Columbia has grown from 32.5 percent to 71.2 percent. It now takes an average of 308 days to rate a claim in Columbia.
The backlog is not the only problem in Columbia under Hawkins. In September 2008, the agency's Inspector General found some regional offices were inappropriately shredding critical documents that were needed to process veterans' claims, triggering an immediate nationwide review by the agency.
A subsequent investigation found almost 500 documents in 40 offices had been wrongly sent for shredding. A fifth of those mishandled documents were found in Columbia, the most of any location.
Hawkins got a $19,000 merit bonus in 2008 and another for $12,000 in 2009.
"Our office is the epitome of what's wrong with the VBA: the lack of accountability," said Ronald Robinson, president of the American Federation of Government Employees union local that represents claims processors in Columbia. "You reward bad performance."
AFGE has complained in the past about the bonuses paid to Hawkins. In 2008, the union called for Hawkins to be removed after he received more than $50,000 in bonuses over the prior two years.
During that same period, the Columbia office paid out more than $500,00 in civil settlements to employees who had filed claims alleging discrimination and retaliation, according to the union.
"They reward a person for failure," said Robinson, who describes Hawkins' management style as "dictatorial."
Hawkins did not respond to requests for an interview, referring all questions to the VA media relations office.
Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said VA appears to be paying undeserved bonuses to executives in poor-performing offices.
"Some of these bonuses seem unwarranted given the poor performance of certain regional offices," Michaud told The Washington Examiner. "It calls into question whether VA has the right executive performance goals and objectives."
Mark Flatten is a member of The Washington Examiner's Watchdog investigative reporting team. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.