The Veterans Affairs deputy secretary on Wednesday said the department would stop “routinely” putting employees under investigation on administrative leave, instead giving them other job duties while the disciplinary process plays out.
During a tense and at times combative hearing on Capitol Hill, Sloan Gibson told the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee that administrative leave would be used sparingly going forward for employees under investigation. Except for cases involving “egregious” behavior, most employees under investigation will simply be given another work assignment while they await their fate during a disciplinary review, Gibson said.
The VA, as well other federal agencies, has been criticized for allowing employees accused of misconduct, poor performance and even crimes, to stay on paid administrative leave for months, sometimes years. The House VA Committee has been asking the department for information related to employees on administrative leave since July 2014.
The Government Accountability Office found that VA had put 6,000 employees, or 2 percent of its workforce, on administrative leave for one to six months from 2010 to 2013. In fiscal 2014, the VA outspent all other agencies surveyed with respect to employees on administrative leave for a month or more, auditors found. A sample of 18 federal agencies spent more than $80 million in 2014 for some employees to not work for at least one month, according to a recent GAO report.
Gibson also defended his decision to demote and reassign rather than fire two senior executives whom the department's watchdog concluded used their positions of authority for personal gain. The evidence against Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves did not warrant firing, or the IG’s criminal referral to the Justice Department, Gibson argued.
“I’m not going to recommend, I’m not going to propose a disciplinary action that is based upon media coverage, or an opinion that is expressed in the IG report, if it is not supported by the evidence,” he said, adding that he knew his decision not to fire Rubens and Graves wasn’t going to “sit well, with virtually everybody.” The deputy secretary also said the department will no longer wait for the IG to complete its investigations -- which often can take several months -- before moving ahead with its own review and proposed disciplinary actions against employees, including removals. “We knew there was an issue with the relocation expenses months before the IG released a report,” Gibson said, referring to the matter related to Rubens and Graves. “We’re not going to wait anymore.”
In a statement to the committee, the VA IG office said it “took exception to the inference that we based the subject report on ‘unsworn hearsay conclusions.’ All interviews conducted during the work on this report were sworn and taped interviews conducted by experienced senior OIG staff.”
The department’s watchdog in September concluded that Rubens, who was director of VBA’s Philadelphia regional office, and Graves, who led VBA’s St. Paul regional office, improperly helped create vacancies at their respective offices and volunteered to fill them. The two employees occupying those jobs at the time -- Antione Waller and Robert McKenrick – were relocated to jobs (in Baltimore and Los Angeles, respectively) they did not volunteer for to make room for Rubens and Graves, who were working elsewhere at the time, according to the watchdog. VA paid roughly $274,000 in relocation expenses for Rubens, and about $129,000 for Graves, for a total of more than $400,000.
After announcing their demotions in late November, VA then bungled the disciplinary process for Rubens and Graves because of an administrative error, delaying their punishment -- a misstep lawmakers repeatedly highlighted. “I find it ironic that you personally sent me two letters admonishing me for potentially damaging their cases against Ms. Graves and Ms. Rubens if I proceeded with our hearings in October, yet in the end, their cases were damaged due to the inability of VA’s lawyers to simply keep track of critical evidence,” said House VA Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., during Wednesday’s hearing.
Gibson said that he hopes VBA employees understand that the department is “committed to holding senior leaders accountable for their behavior, but that we are also committed to doing what is supported by the evidence.” The deputy secretary said he and VA Secretary Bob McDonald believe in “sustainable accountability,” essentially performance-based management that results in “positive veteran outcomes.” He emphasized that organizations cannot “fire their way to excellence.”
Miller took issue with the tone of Gibson’s opening statement, saying it reflected a “passive criticism” of the panel’s efforts at oversight and reform. “I think your statement is pretty damn inconsistent,” Miller said, criticizing VA for its “continued and pervasive failure to seriously discipline its employees” and its “ineptness” in handling the matter involving Rubens and Graves.
Miller later apologized for his profanity after Ranking Member Corrine Brown, D-Fla., took issue with it; he asked the record to be altered to say “dang” instead of “damn.”
The chairman, and other members, however, were clearly frustrated with what they consider the VA’s glacial pace in changing an entrenched bureaucracy and decades of mismanagement, as well as their efforts to root out bad employees.
“I think you are doing the best you can do, Secretary McDonald is doing the best that he can do, but you’re both placeholders,” said Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., whose district is home to a delayed, over-budget and much-maligned VA facility construction project. “And you don’t have the authority from the White House, you don’t have the support from the president, to make the kind of changes that need to be made. … This agency in the federal government was in crisis when you came in; it will be in crisis when you leave.”