Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs Sloan Gibson (REUTERS/Samantha Sais)

A Veterans Affairs official on Wednesday defended the department’s decision to demote but not fire two senior executives who collected $400,000 in a relocation scheme, and pushed back sharply against lawmakers for pressing for punishment rather than accountability for the VA workforce.

“In my many years in the private sector, I’ve never encountered an organization where leadership was measured by how many people you fired,” Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson told the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

“You can’t fire your way to excellence.”

[Senior VA executives used their positions to get plum jobs, then took the jobs themselves, watchdog says]

Exhibit A at a hearing called to press VA officials on why they have had limited success firing or disciplining employees accused of misconduct was the case of Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves.

The senior executives were demoted one rank down to GS 15 on the General Schedule in November in response to allegations that they manipulated VA’s hiring system for their own gain.

The agency’s deputy inspector general found in a report this fall that Rubens and Graves forced lower-ranking regional managers to accept job transfers against their will. The women then took the vacant positions themselves, keeping their pay but reducing their responsibility as regional managers in the Veterans Benefits Administration.

[Will wrongdoers at VA ever be held accountable? Lawmakers to press top brass]

But Gibson, reading from prepared testimony, said the inspector general’s office exaggerated the actions, which the watchdog’s office has referred to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution.

“We won’t administer punishment based on IG opinions, referrals to the Department of Justice, recycled and embellished media accounts, or external pressure,” Gibson said. “It’s simply not right, and it’s not in the best interest of the veterans we serve.” He called the cases “failures in judgment” and not “ethical breaches.”

[Relocation problem for senior executives should be investigated across gov’t, watchdog says]

VA and lawmakers in both parties have been at odds for more than a year over how the agency should address allegations of misconduct, particularly after last year’s cover-up of patient wait times. Congress passed new rules to speed the dismissal of senior executives, but  lawmakers have complained that the agency has been slow to put them into effect.

Gibson announced two changes to how VA will discipline employees: officials will no longer wait for outside investigations to conclude before moving forward with punishing employees who violate the rules, he said, and the agency will limit the time it places employees on paid leave.

But Gibson testified that VA cannot improve simply by firing its staff. It will focus on “sustainable accountability,” he said, focusing on positive reinforcement of employees who follow the rules.

Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) was furious.

“Mr. Gibson, I think your statement is pretty damn inconsistent,” Miller said, according to published reports. “We’re all educated enough to know the definition of accountability but you and the secretary have decided to change that definition.”

Miller said he was “dumbfounded” by Gibson’s position on Rubens and Graves, according to published reports, and compared a decision to allow the women to keep their relocation bonuses to bank robbers who keep the money they stole.

A VA attorney testified that the agency cannot reclaim the $400,000 because it was approved by other officials who believed the payments were merited.

“They were approved by senior officials based on their beliefs these individuals [Rubens and Graves] should make those moves, yes,” said Meghan Flanz, deputy general counsel, Stars and Stripes reported.

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