Former Navy Corpsman Nominated as Head of VA Accountability Office

The front of the Department of Veterans Affairs building in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
The front of the Department of Veterans Affairs building in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Two things happened Friday that will greatly affect hiring, firing and the monitoring of union activities at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

President Donald Trump announced his intent to nominate Tamara Bonzanto of New Jersey, a Navy veteran and registered nurse, to head the VA's Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection.

The VA also announced it is putting into effect Trump's executive order aimed at cracking down on union activities while on the clock in the federal workforce.

The nomination of Bonzanto, now a health care investigator for the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight, came more than a year after Trump signed the Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act on June 23, 2017, which he said would weed out poor performers at the VA.

Congress wrote into the bill that the head of the accountability office must be nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. But the office has been run by interim managers in the ongoing shuffle of VA leadership, raising bipartisan concerns in the House and Senate.

The White House announcement of Trump's intent to nominate Bonzanto said she served in the Navy from 2001 to 2006 as a hospital corpsman. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in nursing from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia and then served as a nurse case manager for the Army Reserves from 2012 to 2015, the White House said.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said Bonzanto's nomination should bring needed improvements to the accountability office.

In a statement, he said Bonzanto's experience in the House and as a "health care coordinator between the U.S. armed forces and the VA give her the unique experience to navigate the challenging role of ensuring our veterans are best served by the VA and its employees."

"Our committee is working to ensure the new Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection meets its responsibility to manage senior executive discipline and protect the rights of whistleblowers," Isakson said.

Current VA Acting Secretary Peter O'Rourke, an Air Force and Navy veteran and former Trump campaign worker, was the first executive director of the accountability office.

He later became chief of staff in February when Vivieca Wright Simpson retired from that post amid the scandal over the travel expenses of then-VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin, who was ousted by Trump in March.

The current executive director is Kirk Nicholas, a retired Marine colonel who previously worked in the Army's Office of Business Transformation.

Nicholas and O'Rourke testified last week before the House Veterans Affairs Committee on the implementation of the accountability act more than a year after Trump signed it into law.

At the signing ceremony, Trump said, "Outdated laws kept the government from holding those who failed our veterans accountable. Today, we are finally changing those laws -- wasn't easy, but we did have some fantastic help -- to make sure that the scandal of what we suffered so recently never, ever happens again, and that our veterans can get the care they so richly deserve."

He referred to the 2014 wait-times scandal at the Phoenix VA, in which managers were accused of keeping secret lists to hide poor performance.

At the hearing, Rep. Mark Takano, D-California, cited VA accountability office data in charging that in the first five months of 2018 only 15 managers were among the 1,506 VA employees removed.

The VA's data also showed a marked increase in firings since Trump took office. The VA said that a total of 2,537 people from a workforce of more than 360,000 were fired in 2017, including 1,443 removals and another 1,094 probationary removals during training periods.

That was an increase of 536 firings over the previous year. In 2016, the VA fired 2,001 people, including 983 removals and 1,018 probationary removals, according to VA data.

The House hearing included several testy exchanges between Republicans on the committee and J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the civil service union representing about 240,000 workers at the VA.

Reps. Jodey Arrington, R-Texas, and Neal Dunn, R-Florida, renewed charges that veterans were badly served by union members at the VA spending 100 percent of their time on union activities.

Cox charged that the accountability act is creating a "climate of fear" at the VA that minor transgressions or disagreements with management could lead to firing.

"The accountability act has proven to be one of the most misguided and counterproductive VA laws ever enacted," Cox said.

Following O'Rourke's testimony, Isakson called on Senate leadership to move immediately on a full Senate vote to confirm Robert Wilkie, the former undersecretary for personnel and readiness at the Defense Department, as the next VA secretary.

In a statement, Isakson made no reference to O'Rourke but said, "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."

On Friday, the VA announced that it had begun implementing Executive Order 13837, "Ensuring Transparency, Accountability, And Efficiency in Taxpayer Funded Union Time Use."

The order, signed by Trump on May 25 and now the target of lawsuits by civil service unions, is aimed at ensuring that "taxpayer-funded union time is used efficiently and authorized in amounts that are reasonable, necessary, and in the public interest," the VA said.

The executive order would limit union activities by VA workers to 25 percent of their official time.

In a statement, O'Rourke said, "This executive order ensures the proper stewardship of taxpayer dollars. The order offers reasonable standards for union representatives and makes clear that they should spend the majority of their duty hours on federal government work."

The VA said the executive order would "affect about 1,700 VA employees using taxpayer-funded union time."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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