Veterans Affairs officials' attempt to punish a pair of high-ranking executives over mismanagement issues has been knocked down by appeals judges who ruled the department's other disciplinary moves have been too inconsistent to justify punishing those two.
The news comes a month after Justice Department officials announced they would not charge the two women officials with any criminal activity, despite accusations from the inspector general the executives manipulated the hiring practice and unjustly pocketed about $400,000 in federal funds.
The collection of decisions leaves the women — Diana Rubens, Philadelphia Regional Office director, and Kimberly Graves, a Minnesota regional office director — in their current jobs, despite VA officials' efforts to demote and relocate them.
It also leaves the department with a host of questions surrounding leaders' promises to restore accountability and integrity within the department. Both appeals rulings found the women had acted improperly in parts of the saga, but said VA leaders did not have standing to make an example of them because of their spotty past accountability efforts.
"There is a significant problem created by the inconsistent treatment of a comparable employee," one ruling stated. "It is undisputed that (other officials in the case) have not been disciplined and, in fact, have been promoted."
Lawmakers seized on the disciplinary reversal as yet another major failure for the department.
"Once again, VA's long and well documented aversion to accountability is creating major problems for the agency," House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said in a statement.
"Today's decision, along with a similar one last week, provides irrefutable proof of two facts: VA isn't consistently and fairly holding employees accountable and — contrary to the repeated assertions of department officials — VA leaders do not have the authority they need to swiftly discipline misbehaving employees."
The inspector general report released in late September charged that Rubens and Graves abused their authority within the department to reassign their predecessors to other jobs within VA, then moving into the vacant positions themselves.
Investigators said the moves carried with them fewer responsibilities but no salary reductions, plus generous relocation payouts. Graves, who makes nearly $174,000 a year, got more than $129,000 to move from Philadelphia to Minnesota. Rubens, who makes $181,000, received more than $288,000 to move from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia.
Most of that money was tied to home purchasing programs available to relocated federal employees. In response to the report, VA leaders suspended use of the relocation program, and are reviewing broader reimbursement policies.
But they strongly criticized the IG report, calling the charges salacious and unfounded. Instead of firing the pair — as multiple lawmakers demanded — they were demoted to non-senior positions across the country.
Both appealed, using provisions included in legislation approved by Congress that was designed to speed up the disciplinary process. In this case, it reversed the punishment instead.
Congress has repeatedly criticized for infrequent firings within the department, even in the wake of nationwide scandals regarding patient wait times and records manipulations.
Last month, VA Secretary Bob McDonald told members of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee that "we have enough authority to fire people" and that dismissing more employees would not improve services throughout the department.
But he has also repeatedly promised to punish individuals found guilty of mismanagement and incompetence, a promise that lawmakers have repeatedly called into question.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.