The Veterans Affairs Department's top deputy is confident that his months of accountability efforts are helping to clean up operations throughout the agency, even if firings have been fewer than what most outsiders have wanted.
Sloan Gibson, who served as acting VA secretary for two months after Eric Shinseki resigned last summer, said he understands lawmakers' frustrations with VA workers who retire or resign before administrative reviews are completed. But he also said he does not think that sends a bad message to other employees.
"People see these investigations, and they'll tell you these investigations are unpleasant," he said. "They see how demoralizing this is, to go through the process and to be accused of wrongdoings, to have these kind of questions asked. This is not people getting away with whatever it is.
"They're gone either way, which allows us to move forward. I don't think it really takes the edge off of accountability in the organization."
Gibson's comments came in response to reporters' questions about ongoing problems with construction of a new VA medical campus in Denver, a project now on course to be finished a year late and about $1 billion over initial cost estimates.
Two administrators at the center of problems with the project retired in recent weeks as top VA officials moved to discipline them administratively. Gibson said that since no criminal action was found, the department has "no basis for taking any disciplinary action."
That pattern has repeated across the country at VA offices since last summer, when Congress finalized rules to speed up the firing process for problem employees.
Numerous executives suspected of involvement in problems with patient wait times and patient access issues have stepped away from their posts in the face of administrative punishment, allowing them to avoid the notoriety of a suspension or firing.
Congress has responded with legislative proposals to go after separated workers' pensions and employment records — ideas that the VA has not supported.
Gibson noted that the majority of senior executives within the department are eligible for retirement, making any administrative actions in lieu of separation difficult
"If somebody decides they're going to leave, retire or resign, at any time in that process, they have the right to do that," he said. "They see what's going on. They see the questions being asked. They see where things are going."
But he also pushed back against the idea that the departures send the wrong message to the department as a whole, noting that the seriousness of the investigations shows that leaders are committed to rooting out problems.
"I am dually interested in ensuring we create an environment of sustainable accountability across the organization, which also includes recognizing people for good work … and making sure we're in a position where we can move ahead," Gibson said.