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Laura Eskenazi, executive in charge and vice chairman, Board of Veterans’ Appeals
Laura Eskenazi, executive in charge and vice chairman, Board of Veterans’ Appeals (Veterans Affairs photo)
Laura Eskenazi, executive in charge and vice chairman, Board of Veterans’ Appeals
Laura Eskenazi, executive in charge and vice chairman, Board of Veterans’ Appeals (Veterans Affairs photo)
Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo.
Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo. (Congressional photo)

WASHINGTON — A House panel says the head of the VA’s Board of Veterans’ Appeals continues to mismanage the legal office and may have been “untruthful” in her sworn congressional testimony claiming improvements in processing vet appeals last month.

Despite reassurances to lawmakers, Board Vice Chairman Laura Eskenazi appears to have still promoted unqualified attorneys, not properly advertised open job positions and created new employee positions that will not decrease the board’s growing backlog, according to Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo.

Coffman, the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs oversight and investigations subcommittee, questioned whether Eskenazi could perform her job in a letter sent to VA Secretary Bob McDonald on Oct. 1, weeks after a department whistleblower also testified before the House about records manipulation and improperly delayed appeals cases by her and other board employees. The board is a relatively small legal department within the Department of Veterans Affairs that reviews vet appeals over benefits decisions.

“These actions call into question the credibility of Ms. Eskenazi’s leadership and whether she is taking the BVA down the right [path],” Coffman wrote. “I question her decision-making process, knowledge of the current backlog situation, foresight to [move] the BVA forward, and commitment to veterans to get cases decided in a timely manner. I simply question her abilities.”

The complaints over job performance come as the VA announced Tuesday that it is firing four top executives to root out misconduct and corruption in the wake of a national scandal over records manipulation and long wait times in its health care system. Over the summer, Congress passed a comprehensive reform bill that streamlines the firing and appeals process.

Among Coffman’s claims against Eskenazi’s leadership:

- The board’s 300,000-case backlog is increasing.

- Board attorneys were promoted to positions they are not qualified for and positions were not advertised as required by law

- Three part-time administrative law judge positions were created, but will be part-time and not be required to meet a quota of resolving 700 cases per year as part of the effort to decrease the backlog.

- Eskenazi also added two chief judge positions to the board, though the judges are not required to meet the quota and so represent “1,400 appeals that will go undecided in a year.”

Coffman asked the VA to explain the criteria for promoting attorneys and for Eskenazi to give a detailed description of her plans to reduce the large number of appeals yet to be decided.

“Ms. Eskenazi testified that morale at the BVA had increased, and she was working with all of the attorneys to discover new ways to process cases more efficiently,” Coffman wrote. “However, it appears that Ms. Eskenazi’s statements may not be wholly truthful and in fact actions are occurring that would effectively hurt veterans, as resources are not being fully utilized to make determinations in veterans’ appeals.”

Coffman issued a statement to Stars and Stripes Tuesday saying “the testimony offered by Ms. Eskenazi before my subcommittee on Sept. 10 does not conform with the facts as we know them. My concerns are predicated on what seems to be a pattern of misleading testimony and public statements from VA officials in the past.”

The VA did not respond to questions Tuesday morning. A spokeswoman said the department is working on a response to Coffman.

Last month, a whistleblower from the appeals board, Kelli Kordich, testified before the House subcommittee, saying Eskenazi and others manipulated records to hide overly long delays in deciding cases.

Kordich testified that the vice chairman and head office staff shifted cases in a tracking system in 2012 to wipe evidence it had held some for months or longer.

At least one case was held for over a year and Eskenazi personally delayed five appeals cases, she said.

In response, Eskenazi told lawmakers that some appeals languished due to specific issues preventing a decision or because VA attorneys were overloaded with work.

On Tuesday, Kordich, who remains on the BVA, told Stars and Stripes that Eskenazi has continued to deny dysfunction in the VA appeals process following the congressional hearing and the VA “secretary has done nothing to rectify the situation at the board, which I assume prompted Congressman Coffman to compose this letter.” Twitter: @Travis_Tritten


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