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Union Bosses, VA Bosses Rigging System for Failure

A visitor leaves the Sacramento Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Rancho Cordova, Calif., on April 2, 2015. Rich Pedroncelli/AP
A visitor leaves the Sacramento Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Rancho Cordova, Calif., on April 2, 2015. Rich Pedroncelli/AP

U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, a Republican from Chumuckla, Florida, is the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

In an expletive-laden rant delivered earlier this year, a belligerent American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox threatened Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald with physical violence.

Cox was "prepared to whoop Bob McDonald's a--," he said. "He's going to start treating us as the labor partner … or we will whoop his a--, I promise you," Cox continued.

McDonald's response? Absolutely nothing.

The exchange perfectly encapsulates the corrosive influence government union bosses are having on efforts to reform a broken VA. It's a never-ending cycle in which pliant politicians and federal agency leaders bow to the bosses' demands to preserve the dysfunctional status quo of our federal personnel system, which almost guarantees employment for government bureaucrats no matter how egregious their behavior.

The problem with union bosses like Cox is that they are more interested in protecting misbehaving VA employees than the veterans the department was created to serve.

The problem with VA leaders like McDonald is that, in their perpetual quest to placate big labor's powers that be, the taxpayers and veterans they are charged with serving are paying the price.

It's no wonder McDonald was silent after Cox's violent threats. Cox's bellicose behavior is precisely the type of employee conduct VA leaders and union bosses routinely defend.

Take the case of a VA Caribbean Healthcare System employee who AFGE helped to keep her job after she participated in an armed robbery. Unwilling to admit the crucial role AFGE union bosses played in helping the criminal keep her job, VA has offered a series of outrageous excuses in order to explain her continued employment. "There was never any indication that the employee posed a risk to Veterans or VA property," VA Under Secretary for Health David Shulkin said, adding that the employee couldn't be terminated for her armed robbery participation because it occurred in her free time. Really?

The fact that AFGE routinely defends the indefensible among VA employees is not surprising. After all, the organization's first loyalty is to government workers above everyone else. What's disappointing, however, is VA leaders' refusal to challenge AFGE and its tactics. VA's silence is more proof that the bosses -- both VA and union -- are all part of the same system, which specializes in protecting its own.

Consider how VA safeguarded two senior bureaucrats when the department's inspector general caught them orchestrating a scheme to rake in thousands in taxpayer-funded relocation benefits.

According to the IG, VA regional office directors Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves inappropriately used their authority, enabling them to benefit from a total of more than $400,000 in taxpayer-funded relocation payments. Rubens, alone, received more than $274,000 in benefits to make the roughly three-hour move from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia. That's almost $100,000 per hour of driving.

When alerted to Rubens' and Graves' conduct, VA's inspector general made criminal referrals to the Department of Justice, while VA leaders went out of their way to allow them to keep their jobs, as well as the benefits they collected as part of the scheme. VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson even expressed confidence in the pair's leadership abilities and said keeping them on the payroll as regional office directors was "the morally right thing to do."

For VA and union bosses, however, it's about more than just protecting their own. They are also actively fighting to protect VA's broken status quo.

Case in point is the Veterans First Act, a Senate bill that was ostensibly designed to address the department's number one problem: its widespread and pervasive lack of accountability for misbehaving employees.

AFGE union bosses got their hands on an early draft of the legislation and demanded that senators water down the bill in four key areas. After senators made all of the changes the union bosses had dictated, AFGE endorsed the bill.

Once the union bosses gave the revised Veterans First Act their stamp of approval, McDonald began rallying support for the legislation.

McDonald's sudden support for the Veterans First Act marked a remarkable change of heart for him on the subject of VA accountability. Previously, McDonald's VA had opposed almost every bill that would have attempted to meaningfully help VA solve its accountability problems. Perhaps McDonald only supports accountability reforms that union bosses have had the chance to render toothless.

And so it goes at VA, where union and VA bosses fight to maintain a system in which corrupt and incompetent employees have more rights than the veterans they are charged with serving.

Meanwhile veterans and taxpayers are paying the price.

-- If you would like to submit your own opinion piece or commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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