The Department of Veterans Affairs pushed back Thursday against charges of mounting a political purge of high-level staff seen as not sufficiently loyal to President Donald Trump and his agenda for the department.
"It's understandable that some of these individuals would want to shift blame away from themselves in an attempt to save face," VA spokesman Curt Cashour said in a statement, "but the bottom line is that in President Trump's VA, if employees aren't getting the job done for veterans, it's time for them to move on."
He said that the reassignments were "absolutely not" motivated by politics.
"These personnel moves are what's required to ensure VA is performing at its best," he added.
The statement followed a Washington Post report that more than a dozen career civil servant staffers at VA headquarters had been reassigned to lower-level jobs by Acting VA Secretary Peter O'Rourke, the former chief of staff at the VA who previously worked on the Trump campaign for the White House.
In response to The Washington Post report, 12 Democratic senators wrote O'Rourke charging that he is "putting politics above veterans' needs and that is shameful."
Separately, Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minnesota, the ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and eight other committee Democrats questioned whether O'Rourke is in violation of the Hatch Act, which prohibits executive branch members from engaging in most forms of political activity.
The group asked Special Counsel Henry Kerner at the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which oversees the Hatch Act and the civil service, to investigate whether O'Rourke violated prohibitions against "removing, demoting, or reassigning (VA) employees for political reasons."
"Never before in our nation's history has a President attempted to reshape the Department of Veterans Affairs to reflect his own political ideology," Walz said.
In his statement, Cashour said the personnel shifts are a matter of urgency. "Under President Trump, VA won't wait to take necessary action when it comes to improving the department and its service to veterans," he said. "This has understandably shaken up VA's Washington bureaucracy and, in many cases, employees who were wedded to the status quo and not on board with this administration's policies have departed VA -- some willingly, some against their will as they were about to be fired."
At a hearing of the House Veterans Affairs Committee on Tuesday, Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Connecticut, confronted O'Rourke on allegations that staffers are being reassigned because of "loyalty concerns."
"During your tenure, our committee has been made aware of a significant number of career employees who have served under multiple secretaries," she said. "These employees have been removed, demoted or reassigned, or they've resigned or retired after being made aware of adverse actions coming their way."
Esty has announced that she will not be running for re-election after acknowledging that she kept a staffer on the payroll for months despite accusations against him of sexual harassment and threats of violence.
In response to Esty, O'Rourke said, "We're not on a path to just move things randomly" in making personnel changes to improve the VA. "These are all very well-planned and designed moves to better make efficiency and effectiveness at our level."
Questions of political loyalty surrounded the stormy departure of former VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin, who was ousted by Trump in March.
Shulkin charged that he was the victim of "subversion" by Trump administration political appointees within the VA and at the White House over his refusal to speed up private health care options for veterans. He was also caught up at the time in a scandal over his travel expenses.
O'Rourke has been serving as acting secretary while awaiting confirmation by the full Senate of the nomination of Robert Wilkie, the former undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.
In a statement Thursday, Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, made no reference to O'Rourke but said, "I am urging the Senate to hold a vote to confirm Robert Wilkie to be secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs without delay.
"It is of utmost importance that any policy changes that impact the future of the department be made by a confirmed VA secretary who can be held accountable by Congress and the American people," Isakson said.
Senate leadership later confirmed that a vote on Wilkie's confirmation will take place Monday.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.