Two Veterans Affairs Department senior executives invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination Monday at a congressional inquiry into claims they pushed other executives out of jobs that they then took over.
Diana Rubens, director of the Philadelphia Pennsylvania Regional Office, and Kimberley Graves, director of the St. Paul, Minnesota Regional Office, plead the Fifth more than a half dozen times to questions from House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida.
The two are now facing disciplinary action under the provisions of the Accountability Act Congress passed last year to fast-track firings of VA employees for misbehavior or incompetence, Danny Pummill, principal deputy undersecretary for benefits, told lawmakers.
"They are now in the appeal process," Pummill said. "At the end of seven days, we can tell the committee what the punishment was."
In addition to securing positions they wanted, the two also allegedly benefited improperly from a relocation assistance program that provided them with hundreds of thousands of dollars to move to their new jobs, according to the VA's Office of the Inspector General.
Pummill said department lawyers advised that he could not divulge the disciplinary action being recommended until the appeal period ends.
Miller excused the women from the hearing after about 30 minutes, when it was clear they were not going to answer questions.
The IG has made criminal referrals to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia based on the actions "orchestrated" by Rubens and Graves.
The rare nighttime hearing was spurred by the failure last month of VA to allow Rubens, Graves and the officials they're accused of pushing out of their jobs to testify.
The House panel on Oct. 21 voted to subpoena Rubens and Graves, as well as Antoine Waller, the former St. Paul director who was directed to take the Baltimore job, and Robert McKenrick, who was told to leave the Philadelphia directorship for one in Los Angeles.
But if lawmakers were expecting to hear the allegations against Rubens and Graves uniformly backed by the executives they succeeded, they were surprised.
Waller's testimony supported the IG's report. He said he liked living in St. Paul and believes "there was pressure for me to take another assignment" from Graves, Rubens and VA Deputy Undersecretary for Field Operations Beth McCoy.
Contrary to the IG narrative, however, McKenrick suggested he came around to accepting the move through a "learning process."
"I went through a process … and in the end my decision was that if I had to go I would have to be directly assigned," McKenrick said. He said he accepted that VA thought it was in the best interest of the department that he take the job.
Under further questioning, McKenrick said he had read the IG report and is familiar with its claim that he was forced to take the Los Angeles assignment.
"I didn't see it the same way the IG saw it," he said. Former VBA Under Secretary Allison Hickey, who submitted her resignation last month after the IG report was released, was not subpoenaed but Miler said he did invite her to testify. She did not respond.
Criticism of the VA was bipartisan during the hearing, with Miller saying he was "sick and tired of asking for information from the department and given the runaround," and ranking member Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Florida, hitting the agency for its "culture of cronyism."