TAMPA — The former directors of Tampa Bay's two veterans hospitals received a combined $65,000 in retention bonuses not because another hospital called with a better job.
They got them, oddly enough, because they were close to retirement.
A St. Petersburg Times review of retention bonuses paid to the directors of the Haley and Bay Pines VA medical centers calls into question whether the Department of Veterans Affairs ever determined that the men would have left their jobs without the extra money.
Both directors said they never asked for the money.
In fact, Bay Pines' former director, Wallace Hopkins, 64, said the bonuses did not delay his retirement at all.
"But the retention was nice to build up my savings account," said Hopkins, who worked at the VA for 40 years.
Hopkins, who retired April 1, and former Haley director Stephen Lucas continued to receive retention payments for three months or more after announcing their retirements, the VA confirmed. Lucas, 66, retired in March 2010.
Lucas, a VA employee for more than 36 years, declined to comment, except to say he never sought the bonuses.
"Somebody should have used better judgment," said Paul Light, a New York University professor whose research includes civil service and government reform issues. "It's an outrage, especially for veterans facing huge backlogs in getting benefits approved."
VA officials said they are allowed to make retention payments to delay a crucial employee's retirement, even if they don't ask for it. They said 57 of 152 VA hospital directors around the nation get similar bonuses.
The U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which oversees rules on retention awards for federal employees, did not respond to comment requests.
VA spokeswoman Mary Kay Hollingsworth would not say if the agency certified that Lucas and Hopkins were likely to leave their jobs without the bonuses — a step the VA's inspector general says is required.
The VA declined to provide documentation supporting the bonuses without a Freedom of Information request, which can take weeks to process.
Hopkins and Lucas "were effective directors of two of the [VA's] most complex medical centers," Brian McVeigh, chief consultant for VA human resources, said in a statement. "It is increasingly difficult to recruit highly qualified candidates to take on these challenging assignments" because of higher pay in the private sector.
An industry compensation survey found that hospital CEOs around the nation earned an average of $452,400 in 2010. The base salary paid to Lucas and Hopkins was $179,000.
At Bay Pines in St. Petersburg, Hopkins received retention bonuses totaling about $39,000 in the two years before his retirement, the VA says. At Haley in Tampa, Lucas received $26,263 in the three years before he retired.
The VA said the bonuses were approved by agency headquarters in Washington, and the money was paid in installments.The two got other bonuses, too.
The VA said Hopkins received about $38,376 in performance-based bonuses in 2009 and 2010. At Haley, which has battled large budget deficits the past three years, Lucas received $74,000 in total bonuses in fiscal 2009.
Another unusual aspect of the bonuses paid to Lucas and Hopkins is the duration of payments — two years for Hopkins, three years for Lucas.
The VA's inspector general said earlier this year that incentive payments made to the director of the Providence, R.I., VA hospital were improper because a senior leader in management could have stepped in to replace him. That report dealt with retention incentives paid for just one year, a far shorter period than for Lucas or Hopkins.
William R. Levesque can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3432.