Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald on Thursday hit back against critics of his handling of VA problems, saying some lawmakers are "trying to create controversy using veterans."
McDonald said he is moving as aggressively as the law allows to hold accountable those officials linked to schemes to conceal delays in patient care, including at a VA hospital in Arizona where 35 veterans died.
"These laws are very clear and I'm skeptical if members of Congress don't understand the law," McDonald told reporters during a breakfast meeting in Washington, DC. "What disturbs me is that we're trying to create controversy using veterans to do that, and I don't think that is appropriate."
McDonald made the remark in response to criticisms from Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, and others that senior executives responsible for the care delays are escaping accountability by being allowed to retire or find other jobs.
In a breakfast roundtable with reporters in Washington, DC, McDonald also dismissed reports of a Justice Department email to the House Veterans Affairs Committee stating the Justice Department will not block the firing of Sharon Helman, the director of the VA Medical Center in Phoenix. She has been on paid administrative leave since May 1.
"At least in what I read ... it was an unnamed source in the House committee talking about an unnamed source at the Justice Department," McDonald said.
The email was from Wintta Woldemariam, an attorney with the Justice Department's office of legislative affairs, to Mike Brinck, a veterans' affairs committee staffer. Military.com initially reported on the email but did not identify either individual, under an agreement with the source that provided it.
The source on Thursday authorized Military.com to use the names.
McDonald argues that the VA cannot act on the findings of its own investigations until after criminal investigations -- now underway by the FBI and Justice Department -- are complete.
He also said that legislation passed months ago to increase his authority to fire people has not lived up to expecatations. The only change is in the number of days employees would have to appeal their termination – from 14 to seven, he said.
McDonald also rejected the contention that firing the officials would cost them their retirement benefits. He said the Constitution protects earned benefits as property, and that the only time they may be forfeited is if the individual is found guilty "of treason or treasonous actions."
In addition to 40 senior executives, the VA also is tracking about 2,000 other employees who could face some kind of disciplinary action, McDonald said. Two of those are also on administrative leave from the Phoenix facility.
In addition to Helman, the VA to date has moved to fire four senior officials and dismissed only one, James Dalton, former director of the VA healthcare system in Central Alabama, according to the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
Two others, Dublin VA hospital director John Goldman and Susan Taylor, a senior procurement officer with the Veterans Health Administration, retired after the VA began the firing process. The proposed termination of Pittsburgh Healthcare Director Terry Gerigk Wolf has been put on indefinite hold.
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org