Kimberly Graves, former director of VBA’s St. Paul, Minn., regional office, is one of the officials who will receive a roughly $20,000 pay cut.

Kimberly Graves, former director of VBA’s St. Paul, Minn., regional office, is one of the officials who will receive a roughly $20,000 pay cut. Molly Riley/AP

VA Moves to Slash Pay, Suspend Senior Executives

Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves face a 10 percent pay cut, while Danny Pummill is looking at a 15-day suspension.

The Veterans Affairs Department has recommended suspending one senior executive, and slashing the pay of two others for their roles in the VA’s use of relocation incentives and reassignments of top employees.

VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson on Tuesday proposed a 15-day suspension for Danny Pummill, acting undersecretary for benefits, and a 10 percent pay reduction for Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves, the recently-reinstated directors of the Veterans Benefits Administration’s Philadelphia office and St. Paul, Minn., regional office, respectively.

Rubens and Graves can ask VA Secretary Bob McDonald to review the pay cut recommended by Gibson, but they cannot appeal the decision to the Merit Systems Protection Board. Title 5 allows agencies to reduce senior executives’ rate of basic pay by not more than 10 percent for performance or disciplinary reasons stemming from “conduct-related activity, including, but not limited to, misconduct, neglect of duty, or malfeasance.”

In 2015, Rubens annual salary was $181,497, and Graves’ annual pay was $176,558. So the two are looking at pay cuts of roughly $20,000 under the proposed disciplinary action.

Rubens and Graves also received reprimands, as did Beth McCoy, director of field operations, for “her failure to exercise sound judgment by creating the appearance of impropriety in connection with her involvement in vacating the position to which she was then permanently assigned.” Reprimands are official censure letters and remain in employees’ personnel files for three years. They can be used in an employee’s performance evaluation and cannot be appealed to an outside third party.

Pummill, who can appeal his suspension to the MSPB, was disciplined for failing properly oversee Rubens and Graves during the relocation fiasco involving their jobs, and the reassignment of their predecessors.

Gibson originally demoted Rubens and Graves from the SES to General Schedule jobs, and reassigned them to assistant director positions at the VBA’s Houston and Phoenix regional offices, respectively. Those demotions came with pay cuts of more than $50,000 each. The MSPB, in separate cases, agreed that Rubens and Graves showed poor judgment and created an appearance of impropriety by not recusing themselves from discussions over job reassignments that they both personally gained from. But the administrative judge ultimately reversed Gibson’s decision to remove them from the SES at a significant pay cut, ruling that it was unfair because others involved in the job reassignments, including Pummill and McCoy, were not disciplined.  

Gibson said during a February conference call with reporters that he was launching an investigation into whether Pummill and McCoy should be punished for their respective roles in the saga. At the time, he also said he planned to impose some punishment on Rubens and Graves because while the MSPB reversed the more severe penalty of demotion, the judges upheld the department’s claim that the two executed poor judgment and created an appearance of impropriety.

“When I learned that other evidence was available following the decisions of the Merit Systems Protection Board, I made a commitment to review all of the facts and take any additional accountability actions that I believed to be in the best interest of veterans and taxpayers. That meant looking through an enormous amount of additional evidence,” said Gibson in a statement Tuesday. “After my review of that evidence, I believe that, within the scope and intent of the law, additional accountability actions were warranted. 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.

A controversial September 2015 VA inspector general report, which Gibson has sharply criticized, found that Rubens and Graves 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, according to the watchdog. Additionally, VA paid nearly $300,000 in relocation expenses, including costs related to a governmentwide housing relocation program for Rubens, and about $129,000 for Graves. Both Rubens and Graves took on fewer job responsibilities in their new positions but kept their previous annual salaries of $181,497 for Rubens and $173,949 for Graves. Agencies cannot cut senior executives’ pay unless they’ve engaged in misconduct, or received a less than fully successful performance review.

Overall, the IG concluded that managers at VBA reassigned senior executives to circumvent a pay freeze, and also paid many of those executives unjustified relocation incentives. VBA spent a total of about $1.8 million on 23 reassignments from fiscal 2013 to fiscal 2015, the IG found. All but two of the reassignments came with pay raises, despite an Office of Personnel Management freeze on SES pay from 2010 through 2013, and a separate VBA ban on bonuses in 2012 due to lack of progress addressing the backlog of outstanding disability benefits claims.