Veterans Affairs Department Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson handed down much lighter punishments to the four Veterans Benefits Administration leaders accused of a “lack of oversight” and “creating an appearance of impropriety” involving a departmental relocation program.
“After my review of [the] evidence, I believe that, within the scope and intent of the law, additional accountability actions were warranted,” Gibson said in a release. “We have already reinstated Diana Rubens and Kim Graves to their positions as Regional Office Directors, and I have been encouraged by their immediate effort to get back to work. Ultimately, that is what these decisions are about: getting back to the work of serving America’s Veterans.”
Gibson announced three proposed actions and one measure already issued:
Danny Pummill, acting undersecretary for benefits, would receive a 15-day suspension for alleged lack of oversight.
Diana Rubens, director of the Philadelphia Regional Office, would be reprimanded and VA would propose a 10 percent reduction in salary for “creating an appearance of impropriety”.
Kimberly Graves, the director of the Minneapolis/St. Paul Regional Office would be reprimanded and the agency would propose a 10 percent salary reduction for “creating an appearance of impropriety”.
Beth McCoy, the director of Field Operations, was reprimanded for involvement in “creating an appearance of impropriety”.
VA said the proposed punishment for Pummill could be appealed to a third party, while Rubens’ and Graves’ pay reductions, if sustained, may be reviewed by the VA secretary, but may not be appealed to outside third parties.
VA said reprimands may be grieved administratively but may not be appealed to outside third parties.
The VA inspector general named Rubens and Graves in its September 2015 report. The IG stated the two women inappropriately coerced two other directors to leave their positions when they were not interested in leaving, so it would create vacancies for Rubens and Graves, and the government would pay roughly $400,000 for them to relocate.
Gibson said last month that when the IG published its report, auditors left out a “vast amount of exculpatory evidence” in the file. He also claimed the IG “picked and chose pieces that they put in their report in order to support a conclusion that they wanted to reach.”
Both women were demoted in November 2015, but their punishments were rescinded after a paperwork mix-up. The VA then reissued the demotions. But MSPB administrative judges reversed the penalty, saying that the punishments were “unreasonable” because supervisors, namely Pummill, never took action to stop the transfers. McCoy, Rubens’ assistant, also wasn’t initially implicated for her role in the relocations. Both Rubens and Graves returned to work in February.
In addition, VA said it would take no further action regarding issues of delays and cost overruns of $1 billion during construction of the Denver VA hospital. The investigation concluded that the officials responsible are no longer employed with the VA.
“We know that errors were made in the construction of the Denver replacement facility,” said Gibson. “We have owned those challenges and taken action to get the project back on track. After reviewing thousands of pages of documentation, I determined that the evidence does not support accountability action against any individual still employed by VA.”
Congress approved VA’s request in September to shift $625 million between accounts to finish the hospital project under the control of the Army Corps of Engineers.
Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the Committee on Veterans Affairs, denounced the decision by Gibson to lighten the punishments.
“Nearly every day we are reminded that accountability at the Department of Veterans Affairs is almost non-existent. Today’s announcement from VA that no one will be seriously disciplined for wasting more than $1 billion on a failed construction project and that a few executives might receive a weak slap on the wrist or a temporary written warning for a relocation scandal that cost taxpayers more than $400,000 is more proof of this sad fact,” Miller said in a press release. “One thing is clear: this dysfunctional status quo will never change until we eliminate arcane civil service rules that put the job security of VA bureaucrats ahead of the veterans they are charged with serving.”
Daisy Thornton is Federal News Network’s digital managing editor. In addition to her editing responsibilities, she covers federal management, workforce and technology issues. She is also the commentary editor; email her your letters to the editor and pitches for contributed bylines.