A top official at the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department on Wednesday defended his decision to demote and re-assign the agency's embattled Philadelphia benefits office director, insisting that firing her would have been too severe a penalty.
At a hearing in Philadelphia, Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson told an administrative law judge that if he had believed the director, Diana Rubens, intentionally manipulated agency employees to arrange her own transfer, he would have fired her.
But Gibson praised what he called Rubens' long and distinguished career and said if anything she was guilty of "an error in judgment, a serious error in judgment" not an ethical violation.
Gibson was the first witness in what could be a two-day appeal hearing for Rubens, who is challenging her demotion, pay cut and re-assignment to Houston last fall. Her lawyers contend the VA unfairly based its decision on a biased and flawed report from the agency's watchdog and mounting pressure from critical members of Congress.
That report accused Rubens of improperly arranging her own transfer from Washington to the Philadelphia job in 2014 so she could be closer to family in Delaware, a relocation that cost the government $274,000.
The VA Inspector General said the move could have been a misuse of taxpayer funds and recommended a criminal investigation. Last month, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington declined to pursue the case.
Rubens is asking a judge from the Merit Systems Protection Board to rule the VA was unjustified in punishing her. Largely silent while under fire in recent months, Rubens is on the witness list but it is unclear if she will choose to testify.
Also on the witness list is Danny Pummill, acting undersecretary for benefits, and Allison Hickey, the former undersecretary for benefits, who resigned amid pressure over Rubens's case.