Two former senior executives with the Veterans Affairs Department who were demoted after allegedly abusing their positions to get plum job assignments have appealed the decision -- again.
Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves were senior executives and regional directors with the VA accused of using their titles to force subordinates out of jobs they wanted for themselves, according to a department's inspector general report from September.
The VA tried to demote the women in October, but the case was dismissed in December on account of a technicality after the department didn't provide them with all the necessary information in the allotted period. The VA earlier this month again tried to discipline the women. And again, they appealed the move to the Merit Systems Protection Board, which will determine whether the demotions stand.
"We'll see," VA secretary Bob McDonald said in a recent interview with Military.com. "Both ladies have appealed and we'll see if our calibration of punishment sticks."
The secretary acknowledged that it may not -- a move that would further infuriate Republican lawmakers who have criticized him for not firing the employees.
The board "could very well overturn even the demotions," McDonald said.
Such a scenario is sure to inflame an already contentious relationship between Congress and the VA over how the department has responded to incidents of alleged corruption.
Rep. Jeff Miller, a Republican from Florida and chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, has said he'd like to see Rubens and Graves fired, if not prosecuted. He said the VA's decision to demote rather than dismiss the women showed it's not "committed to real accountability for corrupt employees."
The VA's inspector general forwarded its report to the U.S. Attorney's Office for possible criminal charges, but the office in December declined to prosecute.
McDonald defended his decision during the recent interview.
Regardless of what congressmen say or demand or even what his own department's investigators report, McDonald said he won't fire agency employees unless he believes the case against them is solid and the dismissal will stick.
"If you're a member of Congress, you can accuse people of anything. You have no evidentiary standard," he said. "If you're an IG [inspector general], the same thing. You can write up a report with all kinds of innuendo and not have to substantiate it."
According to the IG, Rubens got herself into the job of director of the VA's Philadelphia Region and Graves as director of the St. Paul, Minnesota, region by forcing the previous directors to take other jobs.
In both cases the women were assuming jobs with less responsibility but were retaining their higher, senior executive service-level salaries. Between the two they also picked up more than $400,000 from the department through a relocation assistance program for senior executives.
When brought before Congress under subpoena to testify about the IG claims both Graves and Rubens declined to do so, citing their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.
In demoting the two, the VA cut their salaries $50,000 by stripping them of their senior executive status -- though each will still earn more than $120,000 a year -- and also transferred them to other regions as assist ant directors.
McDonald said he knows the decisions are unpopular with Congress, but stands by the call made by Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson, who he has known since they were cadets at West Point more than 40 years ago.
The secretary said Gibson previously served as chief executive officer of AmSouth Bancorporation, one of the largest banks in the South, and later successfully headed the USO, where he more than doubled contributions to the organization.
"I have immense confidence, trust and even love for him," McDonald said. "When he tells me he's gone through the evidence and the evidence does not support firing but supports demotion, I believe him."