Top VA officials reprimanded for relocation scheme. But is it enough?

Three top officials with the Veterans Benefits Administration were issued punishments for abusing the agency's relocation process Tuesday. 

Molly Riley/AP/File
Veterans Affairs Department St. Paul Regional Office Director Kimberly Graves listens during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 2, 2015. A judge has overturned a decision by the Veterans Affairs Department to demote a senior official accused of manipulating the agency's hiring system for her own gain. The VA's acting inspector general said Ms. Graves and another senior executive, Diana Rubens, forced lower-ranking managers to accept job transfers and then stepped into the vacant positions themselves, keeping their senior-level pay while reducing their responsibilities.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) plans to suspend the top official of the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), acting chief Danny Pummill, for 15 days without pay after two of his employees successfully manipulated money from the agency’s relocation process. 

Controversy has surrounded Mr. Pummill and two lower-ranking officials since in September when an inspector general report charged Kimberly Graves and Diana Rubens of abusing their authority. As senior executives (the highest rank of employees at the VBA) Ms. Graves and Ms. Rubens made lower-ranking regional managers at the St. Paul, Minn., and Philadelphia regional offices accept job transfers against their will. The two women then moved into the newly-vacated, lower-ranking positions themselves, keeping their high salaries but assuming fewer responsibilities.

Already earning salaries between $173,000 and $181,500 a year, Graves and Rubens also obtained more than $400,000 combined to compensate for moving expenses. 

Some news reports say former VBA chief Allison Hickey approved of Graves and Rubens’ scheme, prompting her to resign in October and replaced by Pummill. 

But Pummill, Rubens, and Graves are all facing the music now, says US Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs Sloan Gibson Wednesday. Or are they?

In a press release Wednesday, the VA ruled that along with Pummill’s suspension for “his alleged lack of oversight regarding Ms. Rubens’ and Ms. Graves’ actions in connection with their relocations,” Rubens and Graves will also be reprimanded. Rubens and Graves will keep their self-appointed jobs as directors of the Philadelphia and St. Paul Regional Offices respectively, but they will also receive a 10 percent salary reduction. 

“We have already reinstated Diana Rubens and Kim Graves to their positions as Regional Office Directors and I have been encouraged by their immediate effort to get back to work,” says Gibson in a press release. “Ultimately, that is what these decisions are about: getting back to the work of serving America’s Veterans.” 

But some disagree with Gibson, saying that it is the VA’s job to protect veterans and their benefits by hiring honest employees. 

VA’s failure to fire Rubens and Graves is “an insult and a disgrace to all veterans,” says Dale Barnett, national commander of the American Legion. 

Rep. Jeff Miller (R) of Florida, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, told The Associated Press last year that the two women “clearly should have been fired,” and “for those wondering whether VA is committed to real accountability for corrupt employees, VA leaders answered that question with a resounding ‘no.’ ”  

Veteran Affairs’ failure to fire Graves and Rubens back in November “gives me no hope the department will do the right thing and take steps to recover the more than $400,000 in taxpayer dollars Rubens and Graves fraudulently obtained,” added Mr. Miller.

And Miller feels no differently now. 

Graves and Rubens’ disciplinary actions are “a weak slap on the wrist,” and accountability at the VA “is almost non-existent,” says Miller. “One thing is clear: the dysfunctional status quo will never change until we eliminate arcane civil service rules that put the job security of VA bureaucrats ahead of the veterans they are charged with serving.”

This report contains material from The Associated Press.

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