The Department of Veterans Affairs on Thursday rescinded the demotion and reassignment of the embattled director of its Philadelphia benefits office, at least temporarily, after conceding "an administrative error" in the process.
In a statement, the VA said it had failed to give Diana Rubens one of five binders of evidence it used to justify her Nov. 20 demotion, and said she was entitled to the materials as part of her appeal. The agency said it made a similar mistake in demoting another administrator.
"To rectify this omission, the department must rescind and reissue the proposed demotions and afford the employees the opportunity to respond to the additional supporting evidence," its statement said.
The VA said it had begun the process of reissuing the demotions. That did little to appease its chief critic in Congress.
"It seems VA's incompetence knows no bounds," Rep. Jeff Miller (R., Fla.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said in a statement. "By now, it's clear to nearly every objective observer that VA's top officials don't know how to properly discipline employees. What remains unclear, however, is whether they are even interested in doing so."
Rubens' demotion followed an internal investigation that concluded she had orchestrated her appointment from a senior Washington-based VA position to the director's job in Philadelphia, a post that carried fewer responsibilities but the same pay - and included overseeing operations in Delaware, where she has family.
The government paid $274,000 to relocate Rubens from her Virginia home to Delaware County.
The agency's inspector general has recommended federal prosecutors open a criminal probe into Rubens' actions, and Miller's committee has pressed her and the VA for answers.
Rubens did not respond Thursday to an email requesting comment. She has previously declined to publicly address the allegations, and at a congressional hearing this fall she invoked her Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination.
In its disciplinary action last month, the VA said Rubens would be demoted and reassigned to its Houston office. A similar punishment was ordered for Kimberly Graves, who is accused of having helped create a post in St. Paul, Minn., so she could be transferred there. Graves was reassigned to Denver.
During their appeals, each is reporting "virtually" to the agency's central office, the VA said.
The demotions occurred under a 2014 law designed to expedite disciplinary processes at the VA, where nationwide outrage over long wait times for veterans to get benefits or treatment sparked investigations.
The law allows disciplined employees seven days to appeal. A board then has 21 days to issue a final judgment. The administrative error affecting Rubens and Graves was discovered during that process.
Miller has called for Rubens to reimburse the government for her relocation expenses. This week he introduced a bill to give the VA the authority it says it lacks to demand such repayment.
In his statement, the congressman called the latest missteps "an absolutely egregious" mistake.
"Right now, it's incumbent upon VA leaders to do two things: Explain to taxpayers, veterans, and Congress who will be held accountable for this failure, and outline its plan for finally getting serious about accountability at the department," he said.