Deputy VA Boss Pledges New Disciplinary Action Against Two Executives

VA officials Diana Rubens of Philadelphia, left, and Kimberly Graves of St. Paul, Minn., at a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing in Washington, Nov. 2, 2015. (Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes)
VA officials Diana Rubens of Philadelphia, left, and Kimberly Graves of St. Paul, Minn., at a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing in Washington, Nov. 2, 2015. (Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes)

The deputy director of the Veterans Affairs Department on Tuesday said he plans to seek new disciplinary action against former executives accused in a job scam after judges overturned their demotions.

Deputy Veterans Affairs Secretary Sloan Gibson didn't say what type of action the department may take against the two Senior Executive Service, or SES, employees, but pledged some form of "lesser" punishment.

"If I were to say, 'Well, instead of removing them from the SES, I'll remove them from federal service,' that would not be consistent with the judge's order, so yes, it would be a lesser penalty," he said.

In a statement released later in the day, Gibson said, "I will continue to take accountability actions based on my review of the evidence, not on media reports, hearsay or political pressure because we know that is how we ultimately best serve Veterans."

The VA twice tried to demote the two women -- Diana Rubens, director of the Philadelphia office, and Kimberly Graves, director of a regional office in Minnesota -- after an IG report concluded they manipulated the hiring system to force colleagues out of jobs they wanted for themselves.

But judges in separate rulings over the past week disagreed with the VA's decision and overturned the demotions, arguing that the women didn't break any laws and that other agency officials have engaged in the practice without repercussions.

While Gibson vowed to pursue some type of new disciplinary action, he downplayed the idea of reassigning them to new jobs in different locations -- a scenario that would result in added expense to the department.

As it stands, the judges' rulings mean "they go back where they were -- unless the decision is made to move them someplace else," he said. "But I'll cross that bridge when I come to it if I believe that veterans are best served by that."

He added, "I would also remind you that if we were to relocate them we'd have to pay their relocation expenses. So someone help me understand how that is the right thing for taxpayers."

Draft Report

Gibson also said he has asked the IG office to turn over an early draft of the report that purportedly found no wrongdoing by the women.

"I was not aware of that" document, he said. "I have now requested of the IG … that if such a draft exists that I be provided with the draft and an opportunity to speak with the investigator who wrote it."

Ultimately, the released IG report -- authored by several officials, including directors Nick Dahl and Linda Fournier -- concluded that Graves and Rubens forced the previous directors of the St. Paul, Minnesota, and Philadelphia regional offices into taking transfers, then moved into the jobs themselves.

Gibson also said a new investigation would determine if other VA officials involved in job transfers should be disciplined. The Merit System Protection Board judges who reversed the demotions of Graves and Rubens said other officials involved in the transfer process had also been found culpable by the IG report, yet were not disciplined.

Gibson said he saw nothing in the report warranting disciplinary action against others, but pledged to review the evidence again because new information has come to light through the appeals hearing. He didn't say what action would be taken if an earlier version of the report was rewritten for the express purpose of finding that Graves and Rubens committed wrongdoing.

The VA inspector general's office initially forwarded its report to the U.S. Attorney's office for possible criminal charges against Graves and Rubens but the office declined to prosecute.

While lawmakers and some veterans' advocates demanded the two women be fired, Gibson said he saw no grounds for firing, but did demote them to assistant regional directors and reassign them. The charge against them was exercising poor judgment and creating the appearance of impropriety.

In both cases, judges said other officials involved in the job switches arguably were guilty of the same actions but that VA chose not to discipline them. Because of the unfair application of the discipline, they overturned the demotions and reassignments, including restoring the women to their former SES-level status and the additional $50,000 it their annual salaries.

'Errors in Judgment'

Gibson made the decision to discipline Graves and Rubens, calling their actions "errors in judgment." Yet he has since defended their character -- and turned up his criticism of the IG's office.

"The IG published a report, which I have in my hands, which is not supported by the evidence," he said. "There was a vast amount of exculpatory evidence … that the IG chose to ignore here. The IG picked and chose pieces that they put in their report … in order to support a conclusion they wanted to reach."

Gibson added, "There are people who took this report and rolled it up and beat people over the head with it. This became a media sensation and quite frankly I think it's a disgrace to the process that this is allowed to happen."

He noted that the judges in both cases upheld the VA's contention that Graves and Rubens failed to exercise good judgement, but he also offered a defense of their character.

"What has happened is we have taken two good people who made an error in judgement … people who could make a difference for the veterans we swerve day in and day out, and their reputations have been trashed," he said.

The judges said Graves and Rubens' claims of unfair treatment by the VA was legitimate, given the other agency officials who had knowledge of the job transfers taking place, including Danny Pummill, acting undersecretary for benefits, and Beth McCoy, deputy undersecretary for field operations.

Like Graves and Rubens, Pummill and McCoy should have realized the job transfers -- which include a significant relocation assistance package -- could create a perception of impropriety, the judges said.

Gibson said he found no evidence when he first reviewed the IG material that other officials' actions warranted punishment, but will take another look because of evidence that surfaced during the appeals process. In the court ruling in Rubens' case, the judge said the VA acknowledged that McCoy had pressured Philadelphia regional director Antoine Waller to transfer to the Baltimore office.

The investigation will take about one week, Gibson said, and will include testimony to be taken under oath by both Pummill and McCoy.

"If there is evidence supports misconduct that was not available for my consideration previously," he said, "I will take appropriate action."

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bryantjordan.

 

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