- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The VA insisted Tuesday it will still find a way to punish two employees accused of bilking the government out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonuses after federal judges ruled that the department bungled its case against them, restored their full salaries and awarded them backpay.

Deputy Veterans Affairs Secretary Sloan D. Gibson said he will mete out new punishments within a week for Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves, though he said he won’t be able to demote them from the Senior Executive Service after the judges ruled over the last week that was too harsh.

“I will impose some penalty,” he told reporters on a conference call.

But it was Mr. Gibson’s own handling of the case that led two judges to reject his original punishments and restore the two women’s full salaries — spurring questions about how the VA managed to bungle what had seemed like an easy lay-up case against the employees.

Ms. Rubens, who ran the regional VA office in Philadelphia, and Ms. Graves, who was a senior executive in Minnesota, were accused by the department’s inspector general of orchestrating their moves to the positions, keeping high salaries and collecting more than $400,000 between them in relocation bonuses.

The VA, following a law Congress passed two years ago to try to expedite discipline for bad executives at the troubled department, demoted the two women, kicking them out of the Senior Executive Service, which resulted in pay cuts: Ms. Rubens went from $181,497 to $123,775, and Ms. Graves fell from $176,558 to $122,932.

Both women appealed, and administrative law judges this week sided with the women. The judges concluded — using Mr. Gibson’s own testimony — that the women did not actually orchestrate their moves, though they showed bad judgment in leaving the appearance of impropriety.

But the judges said because Mr. Gibson didn’t punish other employees, it seemed like he was illegally singling the two women out.

The ruling stunned congressional overseers, who said the VA ruined its own case.

“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,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “What’s more, the fact that the department is now scrambling to issue an even weaker slap on the wrist to Rubens and Graves is almost certainly of little comfort to the taxpayers who were forced to fund their more than $400,000 in scandalous relocation expenses.”

The VA has been under fire since 2014, when whistleblowers revealed clinics were shunting veterans onto secret wait lists for appointments. VA executives earned bonuses for appearing to be moving cases along quickly, even as dozens of veterans died while waiting for care, stuck on the secret lists.

Congress passed a law to grant the VA streamlined firing powers to get rid of bad executives, but lawmakers say the department has been hesitant to use the new tools.

The department’s inspector general said the two women orchestrated openings in Philadelphia and Minnesota, then arranged to take those jobs themselves, collecting large bonuses in the process.

Mr. Gibson said the IG report unfairly “trashed” the reputations of Ms. Graves and Ms. Rubens — but he also said the women were to blame for giving the appearance that they were involved in wrongdoing. He tried to kick them out of the Senior Executive Service as punishment for that breach, but an administrative law judge ruled Ms. Graves was not given sufficient warning before her demotion.

And in the case of Ms. Rubens, a judge said that since Mr. Gibson didn’t discipline any of the other people involved in approving her move, it appeared the VA was singling her out for special punishment.

That judge, William L. Boulden, said if the law had allowed a lesser penalty, he would have imposed it. But he said since the choice was between demoting Ms. Rubens or reinstating her, he had to reinstate her.

Mr. Gibson said Tuesday he has asked for a short investigation into the other employees involved in the transfers, and will decide next week whether any of them should be punished. He also still needs to decide whether to leave Ms. Rubens in charge at the Philadelphia regional office.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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