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Lawmaker Works to Cut Pensions for Fired VA Directors

House Veterans Affairs Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller
House Veterans Affairs Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller

Veterans Affairs Department executives fired for cause could find their pensions trimmed under legislation being drafted by House lawmakers.

Under the bill, VA Secretary Bob McDonald would be able to reduce senior executive service employees' pensions by nixing benefits accrued during years they engaged in the actions that got them fired, a House Veterans Affairs Committee staff member confirmed on background.

The bill is being drafted by Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

Lou Celli, legislative director for The American Legion, said Miller hopes to avoid the situation as occurred last year, when Susan Taylor, a senior VA acquisitions official, was found to be steering VA business to FedBid, a Virginia company that facilitates so-called reverse auctions in which vendors compete with each other to offer the lowest bids on federal contracts.

Taylor retired with her pension – based on 29 years of federal service – intact, even as the VA was moving to fire her. The VA's Office of the Inspector General referred her case to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution, but DoJ declined to press charges, according to the IG report.

"Should she have been allowed to resign and retire with her full pension?" Celli asked.

The VA Choice and Accountability Act, passed last year to make it easier for the VA to fire senior executives and others for wrongdoing or non-performance, does not get into details about retirement benefits, Celli said.

The impetus for the new law was the wait-times scandal that has been rocking the VA since last April, when CNN reported that up to 40 veterans awaiting a doctor's appointment with the VA hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, may have died.

Celli believes Miller is hoping to address a number of questions in the legislation being prepared, including whether an official's pension should include benefits from years he or she engaged in criminal activity, or whether federal contributions should be forfeited in their entirety, even if the criminal acts took place only at the end of a career.

"I think they're trying to resolve this through new legislation," Celli said.

Lawmakers have been frustrated by VA's failure to hold officials accountable, even after the new law was signed by President Obama last August. In the months afterwards the VA moved to fire five senior officials but dismissed only two.

James Talton was fired from his job as director of the VA healthcare system in Central Alabama and Terry Gerigk Wolf was fired as healthcare director of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania system.

But Taylor, along with John Goldman, director of the Dublin, Georgia, VA hospital, was able to retire before being terminated.

The VA also fired Sharon Helman, director of the Phoenix hospital, for failures related to the wait-times scandal and manipulation of patient records there. But Helman's termination was only sustained by the Merit Systems Protection Board on the basis of her having accepted gifts from a contractor in clear violation of the department's ethics policy.

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

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