This week’s media teleconference with Veterans Affairs Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson started out reasonably enough.
Two new rulings by administrative law judges had regrettably reversed the demotions of two high-ranking VA officials accused of pressuring lower-ranking employees to move out of jobs — one of which is in Minnesota — that each then filled while keeping their higher pay. Doubts raised by the allegations were revealed in an Inspector General’s report that surfaced last year, heightening concerns about the management of an agency already plagued by scandalous wait times for medical appointments.
Gibson, to his credit, quickly promised action as he addressed reporters’ questions about the rulings. He vowed not only to pursue other penalties for the two bureaucrats — Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves, who filled the Minnesota post — but to hold accountable other higher-ranking officials who failed to flag the inherent conflicts.
That’s a sensible strategy. It makes the best of the two frustrating legal rulings. It also addresses the VA’s serious public perception problem. Too many believe that the agency takes better care of its bureaucrats than it does veterans — a situation the recent rulings exacerbated.
Last year, the Inspector General (IG) found that Graves orchestrated a move from the East Coast to Minnesota and claimed $130,000 in taxpayer-paid moving expenses. And, although she had fewer job duties after the move, she retained her $173,000 annual salary. Rubens, who moved from a job in Washington to one in Philadelphia, received $288,000 in moving expenses.
The judges’ decisions to overturn their demotions didn’t hinge on whether Graves and Rubens had engaged in misconduct. That reality was acknowledged. Instead, the issue was whether the discipline given the dubious duo was reasonable. Because several other high-ranking officials who knew of the transfers were not penalized, the demotions were deemed unfair. So the two, who are in the civil service and not a union, were moved back into the agency’s elite senior executive corps.
The judges could not impose a different penalty. But Gibson is certainly free to do so, and he should pursue this swiftly to make up for the agency’s bungling of Graves’ and Rubens’ demotions. Unfortunately, the conclusion of the teleconference didn’t inspire confidence that this would happen.
Gibson’s reasoned approach unraveled under reporters’ questions. Replacing it was a strikingly combative tone, with the agency’s independent Inspector General’s office the target of Gibson’s ire. The hard-hitting IG report on Graves and Rubens referred its findings to the U.S. Department of Justice for possible criminal investigation. While charges were not pursued, that recommendation still makes it difficult to stomach an outcome in which the pair go unpunished.
Gibson accused the IG of discarding an earlier, less-critical report and using “disinformation and innuendo” to reach the conclusion it wanted. He also lamented that the report had “trashed” good people’s reputations. Gibson certainly should pursue his concerns with the IG. But this was not the moment to go to war with the agency’s watchdog.
Gibson’s energy is far better spent holding Graves, Rubens and others accountable and improving processes so future disciplinary actions across the agency stick. Doing so would deter other employees from inappropriately feathering their own nests. It also would be an important step in rebuilding public confidence in the VA — a goal that should be at the top of Gibson’s agenda.