Congress Blasts VA for Ignoring New Law on Firing Employees

  • House Veterans Affairs Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller
    House Veterans Affairs Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller
  • Sloan Gibson, deputy secretary of Veterans Affairs
    Sloan Gibson, deputy secretary of Veterans Affairs
  • VA Secretary Robert McDonald speaks at a news conference at the Veterans Affairs Department in Washington, Monday, Sept. 8, 2014. McDonald discussed his visits at VA facilities across the country and outlined his priorities.Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
    VA Secretary Robert McDonald speaks at a news conference at the Veterans Affairs Department in Washington, Monday, Sept. 8, 2014. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

The head of the House Veterans Affairs Committee on Thursday criticized the Department of Veterans Affairs for ignoring the law Congress passed in July giving the VA chief greater authority to fire employees for mismanagement or bad conduct.

Not only has VA been slow to fire anyone since Congress granted it the new authority, but it has created a five-day advance notification period for informing employees of the disciplinary action, said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida.

"These questionable actions are to be found nowhere in the law that we wrote and the president signed," Miller told VA officials who appeared before the committee Thursday.

Sloan Gibson, deputy secretary of Veterans' Affairs, countered that the five-day advance notice, intended to ensure the employee was given due process, was established on the "clear and unequivocal advice" of VA general counsel.

"It's counsel," Miller interrupted. "The law is clear. The law says there is no period for appeal on the front end, but there is on the back end [after the person is fired]."

"The case law is very clear that we have to provide a reasonable opportunity to charges," Gibson said. The law, under Title 5, calls for a 30-day period, but VA shortened it to five. Without offering opportunity for due process, he said, a firing could be overturned on appeal.

Miller, reading from the law passed in July, pointed out that Congress exempted the VA from that provision of Title 5. Congress did not want the appeal period at the beginning of the firing, he said, but at the end.

"We put it [the appeal period] at the end," he said. "Why didn't you just leave it at 30 days if you're not going to follow the law as it's written? Why did you come up with this phantom five-day appeal?"

"We came up with it because the Congress wanted us to move expeditiously, but we balanced that against the requirement to provide due process or risk being overturned," Gibson said.

Miller and other lawmakers have been taken by surprise at the pace of disciplinary actions at the VA since Congress passed the law in July as part of a $16.3 billion veterans package. President Obama signed the bill on Aug.  7.

Obama's own comments at the signing ceremony at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, further suggested that the bill included sharper teeth when it came to the VA ridding itself of bad managers, in particular those who contributed to, or covered up, actions that harmed the care of veterans.

"If you engaged in an unethical practice, if you covered up serious problems, you should be fired," Obama said.

Since then, the VA has moved to fire five senior officials and dismissed only two. In a series of meetings with reporters and veterans groups in recent weeks, new VA Secretary Robert McDonald said the new law did not give him the authority to simply fire people.

James Talton was fired last month from his job as director of the VA healthcare system in Central Alabama. The VA announced on Thursday the firing of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, healthcare director Terry Gerigk Wolf.

Two others, Georgia's 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 most widely known executive facing disciplinary action is Sharon Helman, who went on paid administrative leave from the Phoenix, Arizona, health care facility shortly after whistleblowers revealed the hospital maintained a secret wait list of veterans seeking appointments.

Those revelations led to investigations that found the problem to be systemic across the VA.

The VA Inspector General's office said delays in care contributed to the deaths of some veteran patients in Phoenix.

On Thursday, House Veterans Affairs Committee member Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Arizona, called for Helman to be fired.

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com.

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