Facing renewed accusations of corruption and incompetence, Veterans Affairs Department leaders charged lawmakers with substituting rhetoric for evidence and seeking vengeance rather than accountability in the department's workforce.
The pointed pushback at Wednesday's House Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing also blamed the media for rushing to judgment on a number of recent department scandals and criticized the VA inspector general for exaggerating problems.
The comments infuriated lawmakers on the committee, who again charged that department leaders are more interested in protecting the status quo than rooting out problem employees.
"You can't fire your way to excellence," responded VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson.
"We won't administer punishment based on IG opinions, referrals to the Department of Justice, recycled and embellished media accounts, or external pressure. It's simply not right, and it's not in the best interest of the veterans we serve."
At issue is a yearlong fight over how department officials should handle reports of mistakes and malfeasance within VA offices. Lawmakers passed new rules in August 2014 to speed dismissal of senior executives, but have said department leaders are slow to react and reluctant to take responsibility.
Most recently, VA officials opted to demote a pair of senior executives accused by the inspector general's office of manipulating the internal hiring process to gain promotions and drive up pricey relocation expenses.
Gibson defended that decision, calling the cases "failures in judgment" and not "ethical breaches."
"What's disturbing — and indicative of the atmosphere in which we're now operating — is the gulf between the rhetoric in the IG report and actual evidence," Gibson said. "In my opinion, the evidence collected by the IG does not support one violation of law … not even one violation of regulation related to relocation expenses."
He announced two major changes to VA disciplinary procedures: Officials no longer will wait for outside investigations to wrap up before moving ahead with punishment, and in most cases employees will not be placed on paid leave while those disciplinary cases proceed.
But Gibson also said that the overall goal of "sustainable accountability" needs to include employee rewards, training and correction. Too much outside emphasis, he argued, is focused only on firing.
The department has forced out nearly 2,350 employees so far in 2015, from a workforce of roughly 350,000.
Lawmakers have lamented that only a small handful of executives faced punishment following the 2014 patient wait time scandal despite reports of problems at more than 100 sites. But Gibson said the IG found fault in only six of those cases, and VA officials have responded promptly.
"Yet, if we take rhetoric as fact, then as it relates to scheduling and access, VA is rife with corruption," he said.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the veterans committee chairman, bristled at the accusation that lawmakers are exaggerating the problems at VA.
"The department and its senior leaders still refuse to take responsibility for the corrosive culture plaguing VA," he said.
"Neither I nor anyone else on this committee has ever said that accountability is only achieved through firing people. But we have instead always believed that disciplinary actions taken against employees should be commensurate with the actions that warranted them, and that is something I consistently see lacking at VA."
He cited cases of individuals being allowed to depart without punishment or placed on paid leave for months while investigations drag on, including a VA nursing assistant in Louisiana charged with manslaughter in the death of a patient.
Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., said new VA leaders have "become part of the bureaucracy" instead of instituting real reform.
Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., called the department "a mess" and said his constituents have little faith the systemic failings can be corrected.
VA officials have said those problems are few and far between, and complained that overemphasis on those separate cases hurts the image of the department and morale of its workforce.
Miller and others disputed the idea that they're unconnected problems.
"It gets tiresome to constantly be told by you and other VA leaders that things are changing for the better … but then to witness otherwise," Miller said.
Gibson countered that lawmakers are overlooking the many positive accomplishments within the department.
"In my many years in the private sector, I've never encountered an organization where leadership was measured by how many people you fired," he said.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.