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When we last looked at the ongoing ethical saga of Kimberly Graves and Diana Rubens, the two executives at the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs’ Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) who abused their power to displace lower ranking employees from their jobs so they could take them for themselves, complete with big relocation bonuses and benefits to lower cost-of-living regions but with no cut in pay, Kimberly Graves had obtained a favorable ruling from an executive branch administrative judge that reversed her demotion—the only penalty she had faced for her unethical actions. Meanwhile, a decision regarding the fate of Diana Rubens demotion was still pending.
At the time, the Chicago-based Merit Systems Protection Board administrative judge who heard the case did not provide any rationale to justify their decision, which resulted in Graves’ annual salary being restored to its pre-demotion level of $173,949.
Since then, another Merit Systems Protection Board administrative judge issued a similar ruling in favor of Diana Rubens, reversing her demotion and restoring her salary to a level of $181,497. But now, at least we have an explanation from the administrative judges in both cases that accounts for the reversal.
It is because both Rubens and Graves’ superiors at the VA knew of their plans and signed off on them. The Washington Post reports on how the VA’s leadership apparently supported Rubens and Graves’ separate plans to oust the incumbents from the jobs they coveted:
An administrative judge reversed Graves’ demotion Friday, saying higher-ranking officials knew about her plans and did nothing to stop them. A different judge reversed Rubens’ demotion Monday on similar grounds.
“There is a significant problem created by the inconsistent treatment of a comparable employee,” Judge William Boulden wrote, referring to Beth McCoy, a VBA official who also pressured a regional manager to leave his position. McCoy was never disciplined and was later promoted, Boulden noted.
Rubens told the judge at a hearing that she “did not hide any of her actions” and that at least three higher-ranking VA officials — including Allison Hickey, the VA’s undersecretary for benefits — were aware of the scheme.
Hickey resigned in October amid criticism of a chronic backlog in disability claims and questions about her role in the transfers obtained by Rubens and Graves. The report by the inspector general’s office said Hickey and other top VA officials likely encouraged the scheme.
And so, with the assistance of two executive branch administrative judges, the institutionalization of corruption at the VA has deepened.
Meanwhile, the man who demoted both Graves and Rubens for their actions, VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson, has said that he still intends to punish them for their ethical transgressions. The Washington Post also reports on that aspect of the story.
Gibson said Tuesday he did not believe it was right for Rubens and Graves to go unpunished when charges against them were sustained.
“I do not believe it’s the intent of Congress, and I don’t believe it’s the right thing” to allow employees who commit wrongdoing to go unpunished, Gibson told reporters in a conference call. “I intend to take some punitive action” against Rubens and Graves.
If the name Sloan Gibson sounds familiar, it is because he is the VA official who testified before a U.S. Congressional committee that “you can’t fire your way to excellence“.
Here is our reaction to Gibson’s exclamation from just over a month ago:
Given what we’ve learned of the state of personnel demotions at the VA, Gibson doesn’t seem particularly capable of enforcing demotions as a path to excellence either. In all his many years in the private sector, he also appears to have not learned that a change of leadership is one of the first definitive steps that you can take to stop the bleeding in a failing enterprise. Sadly, the VA under its current leadership is hemorrhaging blood in more ways than one.
Maybe he’ll listen this time. And as a bonus, in identifying their higher ranking co-conspirators, not to mention an additional case that the MSPB’s administrative judges have clearly stated would need to receive similar punitive action, Graves and Rubens may have provided the key for cleaning house at the VA. For the man who wasn’t capable of enforcing demotions as a path to excellence, the question now is whether he capable of taking that more effective action as a better path to excellence?