Twice removed: After botching 1st attempt, VA demotes 2 senior executives
By DIANNA CAHN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 8, 2016
WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs has demoted yet again two senior executives who’d been found manipulating the hiring system for their own financial gain, after the agency botched the disciplinary action the first time.
In December, the VA rescinded its demotions of Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves, saying it had inadvertently omitted one of five evidence binders that the agency had provided to the two officials.
The move turned back the clock on not only the punishments but also their appeals process, which had already begun, adding to outrage over the VA’s handling of the case.
Lawmakers and veterans advocates had been critical of the VA for not firing the women and charged the agency’s inability to handle the demotions further demonstrated a need for accountability reform.
The VA Inspector General’s Office released an investigation in September concluding Rubens, the director of Veteran’s Benefits Administration’s Philadelphia Regional Office, and Graves, the director of the VBA’s St. Paul Regional Office, had “inappropriately used their positions of authority for personal and financial benefit” by arranging the transfer of subordinates whose jobs they wanted and then volunteering for the vacancies.
This enabled each of the women to transfer out of more demanding jobs while maintaining senior executive salaries, and to receive special relocation pay totaling more than $400,000. The relocation program, which had been created to provide incentives for filling less appealing posts, has been suspended.
Graves and Rubens were demoted in November and reassigned to new posts as deputy directors in different cities at lower pay, though both apparently maintained five-figure salaries.
Those transfers were delayed after both women appealed. It was during the appeals reviews that VA counsel discovered the administrative errors.
As the process wore on, lawmakers lost patience. Even before this case, the VA was shrouded in scandal over revelations that facilities had been doctoring patient wait-lists times to make it look like it was improving its services while veterans were languishing for months and sometimes years without care.
As the case of Rubens and Graves unfolded, the chairmen of the Senate and House Veterans Affairs Committees issued sharp rebuke of the VA for its failure to hold corrupt officials accountable. Critics were further incensed when the VA’s top lawyer determined the organization did not have the legal authority to recoup the hundreds of thousands in relocation bonuses that the women had obtained through abuse of their offices.
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., lambasted the VA at the time as incompetent and unable to properly discipline employees. Asked for response Friday, he said simply: “Nuts!”
A VA statement said the employees can now submit new appeals of their reassignments to the Merit Systems Protection Board. VA officials did not respond to questions about whether this has taken place, but both women had appealed their demotions the first time around, and they could take similar action now that the demotions have been formalized.