A high-ranking Department of Veterans Affairs official on Tuesday defended the VA's failure to discipline two employees accused of misconduct, and blamed the outrage over their lenient treatment on "considerable external pressure" by the media and Congress to punish personnel who may not have done anything wrong.
Sloan Gibson, deputy VA secretary, praised a judge's recent decision in personnel cases that stopped the demotions of Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves, two VA officials accused of together stealing more than $400,000 in benefits from the government.
The allegations against Graves and Rubens came in a September 2015 inspector general report, which found the two officials had created job openings for themselves in far-away cities and gamed a VA program meant to pay the moving expenses of agency employees.
But Gibson said Tuesday the inspector general report was flawed, arguing Graves and Rubens should never have been demoted in the first place.
"Perhaps the greatest frustration for me is, the IG published a report which is not supported by the evidence," Gibson said during a VA conference call with reporters Tuesday afternoon.
"We have taken two good people--they made an error in judgement," he said, noting Graves and Rubens have seen their reputations "trashed."
"There are people who took this IG report and rolled it up and beat them over the head with it," Gibson added.
According to the inspector general, Graves had pressured a colleague to leave his job so she could manipulate the VA's employee relocation program and pocket nearly $130,000 in benefits. The same report found Rubens had created a less-demanding position for herself at the VA's regional office in Philadelphia, then netted $274,000 in moving benefits to take the job while retaining the same six-figure salary.
Gibson denied either official had stolen taxpayer money.
"To the extent that there was any misconduct here, both of these two individuals failed to extricate themselves from this matter, and that created the appearance of a conflict of interest," he said.
Two separate judges on the Merit Systems Protection Board each reversed the VA's decision to demote Rubens and Graves for their role in manipulating the relocation program. Critics were already questioning why the VA had settled on such a light punishment, which included a modest salary reduction, instead of firing the employees.
Gibson said he planned to impose even lesser punishments on the two officials now that the MSPB judges had struck down the VA's first attempt to discipline them.
The deputy secretary blamed the judges' reversal on new accountability legislation Congress passed in an attempt to remove barriers to firing employees accused of misconduct. The VA has frequently faced criticism for its seeming refusal to rid its ranks of officials who break the rules.
"What you found here, particularly in the case of Ms. Rubens, [was] the judge noting specifically that he would have mitigated to a lesser punishment, but that was not available under the expedited action of the Choice Act, and so instead of mitigating the punishment and administering a lesser penalty, the judge decided to just name that penalty unreasonable," Gibson said.
VA leadership has resisted Congress' attempts to overhaul the agency's policies for holding officials accountable, even in the wake of a nationwide scandal in 2014 that severely hampered the VA's credibility on the issue.
"I can't pretend to understand what congressional intent was when they wrote into the law that the MSPB judge could not mitigate punishment," Gibson said.
Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said the VA's effort to issue "an even weaker slap on the wrist" to Rubens and Graves should be of "little comfort" to taxpayers.
"Had VA not been so determined to shield the employees who approved Rubens' and Graves' exorbitant relocation packages from accountability, we wouldn't be having this conversation," Miller said Tuesday. "The real issue VA should be focused on at this point is helping Congress reform the federal government's dysfunctional civil service system, which is at the root of all the department's most serious personnel problems."
Miller said he spoke with Gibson Tuesday morning to ask "for his assistance in this effort," but noted Gibson "adamantly refused."
"VA leaders have fought these efforts at nearly every turn," Miller said of legislative attempts to increase accountability at the embattled agency.