2 VA execs return to work, could still face additional punishments

The two Veterans Affairs senior executives accused of creating an appearance of misconduct with the agency’s relocation program returned to work Monday, after the Merit Systems Protection Board reversed the VA’s punishments.

But Kimberly Graves and Diana Rubens, who were reinstated to their respective positions as directors of the St. Paul and Philadelphia regional veterans benefits offices, could face another form of punishment, following the results of a second investigation from VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson.

The report will likely come out this week, Gibson told reporters in a call from the Philadelphia regional office Feb. 22. The investigation, which he launched earlier this month, took longer than the one-week timeline Gibson originally predicted.

It also includes Principal Deputy Undersecretary for Benefits Danny Pummill and Beth McCoy, deputy undersecretary for field operations and Rubens’ assistant.

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“I expect the report from the investigator this week, along with however many thousands of pages of additional evidence that I will consider as I look at whether or not there’s the basis for appropriate disciplinary action as it relates to those four,” Gibson said. “But I would not expect those disciplinary actions to get in the way of either Kim Graves’ ability to serve as the regional office director in St. Paul or Diana Rubens’ ability to serve as the regional office director here.”

Gibson wouldn’t speculate what other punishment he might consider for Graves or Rubens.

“My presumption here, at least as it related to Kim Graves and Diana Rubens, is that the judge who has already sustained the charge, concluded that removal from the Senior Executive Service and relocation were unreasonable, so that frames the context for actions that I would consider taking here,” he said.

Gibson was generally positive as Graves and Rubens returned to work, emphasizing his confidence in the two executives’ abilities to lead.

“This has been a considerable distraction for a long period of time, not withstanding the fact that our frontline staff has continued to be very focused on taking care of veterans,” he said. “There’s clearly been a lot of distraction around this, and it’s time to put that behind us and get back to the veterans’ business.”

During his visit to the Philadelphia regional office, he said he heard positive feedback from the employees there on the prospects of Rubens’ return. It might take some time to reset relationships between labor and management, Gibson said, acknowledging the challenge is one that managers are working on at VA offices across the country.

He also took his visit to remind federal employees of the high ethical standards they are expected to meet, particularly the principle that discourages “actions that would create the appearance of a conflict of interest.”

“If there’s one thing that I hope that people would carry away from these three decisions … are the challenges associated with being able to enforce accountability in certain circumstances,” he said. “It is an extraordinarily high bar.”

Gibson’s visit comes less than a week after the MSPB reversed the VA’s punishment for another senior executive — the third such case in less than a month.

An MSPB administrative judge said Linda Weiss, the former director of the Albany, New York Stratton Veterans Administration Medical Center, should have done more to discipline a nurse who received complaints for treating patients poorly. The VA’s decision to fire Weiss was too harsh, the board said, considering the evidence and the circumstances.

But Gibson said the judge’s decision on this case was late and disagreed with MSPB’s ruling.

Weiss, however, retired shortly after Gibson initially called for her removal.

“As it stands, she’s removed and I don’t know what the status of her retirement is today,” he said.

Frustration continues over VA OIG

Gibson said he continues to stand by Graves and Rubens, in part, because a report from the VA Inspector General “has been used to trash the reputations of these two senior leaders.”

Gibson has been particularly critical of the IG’s work on this case, arguing that the inspector general picked and chose which pieces of evidence to include in its report on Graves and Rubens.

“Right now, I am quite frustrated with the IG, because the IG continued to produce reports that are based on information that’s a year old, that’s 18 months old, that’s 2 years old,” he said.

He also harshly criticized an IG report on the Veterans Crisis Hotline, which said some veterans’ calls to the suicide line went to voicemail.

“As it relates to this particular IG report, they missed it,” he said. “They missed it by a mile, and I’m not sure why. I hope at some point to understand that.”

Gibson’s frustration comes as the VA sent its OIG to investigate management at the Cincinnati Veterans Affairs hospital, which is under fire for misusing funds under the VA Access, Choice and Accountability Act.

Gibson called for the Senate to quickly confirm Michael Missal to be the department’s permanent inspector general. The VA has been without a permanent IG since December 2013. The Senate Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committees both approved Missal’s nomination.

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