The Justice Department "takes no position" on whether Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald can fire the Phoenix VA Medical Center director, who has been on paid administrative leave since May 1 in connection with a patient wait-times scandal linked to a number of deaths.
The DoJ's view contradicts McDonald's statement last month that that he could not fire Sharon Helman until the Justice Department wraps up its investigation into the manipulation of patient appointments at the hospital.
"As I shared on the phone," a DoJ attorney said in an email to Military.com, "the Department of Justice takes no position concerning whether the employment matters [regarding Helman] should proceed or be stayed."
The email was a follow-up to a phone conversation between a DoJ lawyer and a House Veterans Affairs Committee staffer after the committee requested a briefing to explain what "the potential impact of removing Ms. Helman from federal service would have on the DoJ investigation."
Military.com was provided a copy of the email to the House committee on condition the staff members were not named.
"When evidence of wrongdoing is discovered, VA will hold employees accountable and take action as quickly as law and due process allows," the VA press office said in a statement. "In each case, we'll take the appropriate disciplinary action when all the facts and evidence found by the investigators are known."
Helman has been on paid administrative leave since May 1, shortly after media reports that up to 40 veterans seeking health care at the VA facility died before getting to see a doctor. Whistleblowers from the hospital said schedulers manipulated patient data and kept a secret waiting list to hide the fact the hospital was not meeting VA standards of care.
"If VA has the evidence needed to fire Sharon Helman, which it says it does, it should fire her," Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, said on Tuesday. "The Department of Justice has already said it doesn't mind if Helman is fired, so VA's excuses as to why taxpayers must continue to pay her nearly $170,000 a year for doing nothing are simply hot air."
In response to the ongoing scandal, Congress passed legislation making it easier for McDonald to fire officials, including members of the Senior Executive Service, for mismanagement or if they fail to live up to professional standards.
The VA says it has fired four officials since the new law was passed, though at least one retired before he was terminated.
Miller and others say the VA has dragged its feet on Helman and others, not only in Phoenix but across the country. Since the first reports emerged about the Phoenix secret wait list, VA investigators found such manipulation was a systemic problem across the VA.
"If VA wants to rebuild its reputation with veterans and the prospective health care employees it says it needs, then it should to stop making excuses for the villains of the VA scandal and get serious about purging them from the payroll," he said.
Currently, the IG is itself under fire amid reports it buckled to alleged pressure from VA leadership to water down some of its earlier findings regarding deaths at the Phoenix facility.
After initially confirming that some 35 veteran deaths were linked to data manipulation and an illegal wait list there, the IG told lawmakers in September that it could not conclusively say the delays caused any of the deaths. Under tough questioning, the IG concluded the poor care contributed to the deaths.
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.