Veterans Affairs Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson is promising new disciplinary action against a pair of senior executives accused of gaming the department's internal promotion system, after appeals panels have rejected plans to demote the pair.
"We have charges that have been sustained, but with no punishment," Gibson told reporters Tuesday. "I don't believe that reflects the intent of Congress in passing (new accountability) laws."
He'll also launch an investigation into whether other high-ranking officials should also face punishment for a series of "judgment errors" that amounted to a revolving door of leadership moves which cost more than $400,000 in relocation expenses, money lawmakers have insisted should be recovered from the employees.
That investigation will include interviews with Acting Undersecretary for Benefits Danny Pummill, and possible disciplinary action for his role in the cases.
"If there is evidence that supports misconduct that was not available for my review previously, I will take action," Gibson said.
Gibson would not say whether the new proposed punishments would leave the two embattled executives — Diana Rubens, Philadelphia Regional Office director, and Kimberly Graves, a Minnesota regional office director — in their current jobs.
Rubens and Graves have been are at the center of a months-long controversy that has pitted VA leaders against the department’s inspector general, congressional critics and their own employees.
An inspector general report released in late September charged Rubens and Graves with abusing their authority to reassign other directors to jobs elsewhere 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.
Lawmakers have repeatedly called for their firings. But Gibson and other senior VA leaders have blasted the IG findings as politically motivated and baseless, and recommended demotions instead.
In two separate rulings over the last week, appeals judges denied those demotions, saying the mistakes made by the executives don't warrant that level of punishment. Part of the justification for that decision is that other equally culpable executives weren't disciplined at all for similar mistakes.
Gibson said those comments and new evidence uncovered in the appeals process prompted him to look into whether Pummill — who oversaw both women — and others should face punishment.
He also noted that neither judge refuted VA's assertion that the women made errors in judgement in involving themselves in job transfers that could be self-beneficial, which he called a validation of the department's moves so far.
The new punishment could involve relocating both women to other jobs, but not demoting them from the senior executive service.
Gibson said he still has confidence in both of them as managers, but felt the moves were necessary because of the appearance of impropriety they created.
He also dismissed the idea that his department needs more tools to handle employee accountability, noting that new rules approved by Congress in 2014 may have over-complicated this case.
The appeals judge in Rubens' case noted that he would have preferred to "mitigate" punishment for the executive, but under current law he was allowed only to reverse the decision. The law passed by lawmakers was designed to speed the firing process by simplifying the notification and appeals process.
Gibson called it "the pitfalls associated with a patchwork quilt of processes and legal standards."
A decision on new punishment for Rubens and Graves, and possible punishment for other executives, is expected next week.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.