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VA Tech Team Faces Charges of Nepotism, Abuse

A pair of investigative reports have charged senior officials at the IT office of the Department of Veterans Affairs with nepotism and abuse of power, claiming that the agency awarded more than $24 million in bonuses from 2007 to 2008, a time when it was straining under a severe budget shortfall.

The reports, prepared by the department's inspector general, describe a culture of cronyism at the VA's Office of Information and Technology (OI&T), focusing on a pair of senior managers who abused their positions to secure jobs for friends and relatives, paying out lavish bonuses in the process.

One is Jennifer Duncan, who at the time in question served as executive assistant to Robert Howard, the former assistant secretary for information and technology, but has since retired.

The report describes Duncan as operating as a "de facto chief of staff," carrying significant authority in the department, and even adding the title chief of staff to her e-mails, though no such position existed.

According to the report, Duncan made a practice of handing out bonuses that she did not have the authority to award. The inspector general had harsh words about the outlandish size of some of the awards. Duncan, for instance, took more than $60,000 in retention bonuses from 2007 to 2008. Three other employees in the tech division received similar payouts, each several times larger than the average bonus awarded to IT employees of a comparable grade.

"In addition to the improperly administered awards, we found the frequent and large dollar amount awards given to employees were unusual and often absurd," the report concluded.

"Duncan, in particular, acted as if she was given a blank check book to write unlimited monetary awards."

The report also alleged that Duncan awarded jobs to her relatives and friends, undermining the competitive application process and violating a thicket of rules governing federal hiring procedures.

It provided details of internal e-mails Duncan sent in an apparent attempt to move her subordinates to hire a relative into the VA's IT department. Once hired, Duncan's relative, whose name was redacted from the report, was able to parlay his position as a part-time intern into a full-time job with the department, though he worked remotely and continued a part-time schedule. The report concluded that Duncan was operative in setting up the "peculiar arrangement."

"The report concluded that Duncan used her "non-competitive hiring authority as a way to circumvent fair and open competition in hiring."

The inspector general's other report leveled similar charges against Katherine Martinez, the OI&T's deputy assistant secretary for information protection and risk management.

Martinez, the report alleged, "had an inappropriate personal relationship with Mr. Howard that resulted in favorable treatment and enabling her to abuse her authority."

Among other things, Martinez was able to secure for herself a transfer to Florida, though the report said that she spent 60 percent of her time working at the VA's offices in Washington.

She also secured a contract for a long-time friend of her husband for a project aiming to establish a "gold standard" for information security at the agency following the massive data breach at the VA in May 2006.

The reports also detailed several instances where employees used VA funds for taking IT classes at George Washington University without securing the proper approval.

Spokespeople at the VA did not return a request for comment by press time. Duncan and Martinez were not able to be reached for comment by press time.