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Lawmaker Questions Why VA Reinstated Employee Linked to Armed Robbery

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

A House lawmaker is demanding answers from the Veterans Affairs Department over how an employee fired after being convicted of charges related to a 2015 armed robbery could win her job back.

Rep. Jeff Miller, a Republican from Florida and chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, also wants to know if Elizabeth Rivera's termination from the VA hospital in San Juan, Puerto Rico, was challenged "by the fact that the HR [Human Resources] manager responsible [for] imposing her discipline, Mr. Tito Santiago Martinez, is a convicted sex offender."

In a March 22 letter to VA Secretary Bob McDonald, Miller said, "The union allegedly asserted that Ms. Rivera should be reinstated in her job since Mr. Santiago was also convicted of a crime and therefore cannot discipline other employees who have been convicted of crimes."

Miller sent the letter the same day The Daily Caller reported that Rivera was arrested in connection with an armed robbery last year.  According to a June 16 online report on the San Juan news site Metro, Rivera was in a car with Rolando River Febus when Febus stepped out of the vehicle armed with a gun and attempted to rob a couple. Local police spotted the incident and Febus fled on foot, leaving Rivera in the car.

Although initially charged with armed robbery, she ultimately pled guilty to two misdemeanor charges, according to the Caller report, which did not detail the charges.

Miller said he wants to know exactly why her firing was overturned, who made the call and what role Martinez played.

He also wants to know if media reports are accurate in claiming Rivera wore a GPS ankle monitor when she first went back to work, if she was given back-pay for the time she missed while in jail or after she was fired; why she wasn't fired for missing work while in jail; and why someone awaiting trial for armed robbery was assigned to the office responsible for security at the hospital.

Miller told McDonald he also wants all paperwork associated with Rivera's dismissal and reinstatement, including an unredacted copy of her personnel file and copies of any paperwork of her grievance process, including a hearing transcript.

Axel Roman, a spokesman for the VA hospital in San Juan, told Military.com that under federal law, criminal prosecution or conviction for off-duty misconduct does not automatically disqualify an individual from federal employment.

"The administrative discipline process for poor performance or misconduct on the job operates distinctly from the administrative process associated with off-the-job misconduct," Roman said in an email. "Accordingly one is not necessarily impacted by the other."

Roman's response suggests that the disciplinary action taken against Rivera -- and subsequently reversed -- dealt with her job performance or conduct and not the armed robbery, though he did not respond when Military.com asked for clarification.

VA officials in Washington, D.C., did not respond to Military.com's request for comment.

Miller first began inquiring about Rivera in September after learning of her arrest. At that time, she was still facing charges but had not gone to trial. The Caller reported that she was detailed to VA police and security so that she did not interact with veterans.

In his letter, the congressman said San Juan officials did not tell him in September that she was detailed to facility security.

According to news reports, she was subsequently fired and in February pleaded guilty to the two misdemeanor offenses, with the armed robbery charge dropped. But she appealed and earlier this month the firing was overturned and she was returned to her job, Miller told McDonald.

"It defies all logic that a person who allegedly pleads guilty to a serious crime would be allowed to continue to work at an agency with such an important mission,' Miller said. "I am also concerned that the actions taken by the Department in this case are yet another example of VA's inability to adequately discipline and remove employees who clearly do not share the Department's mission or core values."

The decision to reinstate Rivera follows the reinstatement of two Senior Executive Service employees who VA demoted and reassigned for allegedly using their authority to manipulate the hiring system to maneuver themselves into particular jobs.

The demotions and reassignments of Diana Rubens, director of the VA regional office in Philadelphia, and Kimberly Graves, regional director of the VA office in St. Paul, Minnesota, were overturned only days apart in late January and early February.

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bryantjordan.