Abrupt Firing of VA's Top Deputy Gets Mixed Reaction from Congress

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Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie fired VA deputy secretary James Byrne due to "loss of confidence," just months after the Senate overwhelmingly confirmed Byrne to the job.
Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie fired VA deputy secretary James Byrne due to "loss of confidence," just months after the Senate overwhelmingly confirmed Byrne to the job.

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie's abrupt firing of the agency's No. 2 over a "loss of confidence" received a mixed reaction Tuesday from Congress, which has been kept in the dark thus far on the reasons for the dismissal.

The chairman and ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee said they trust Wilkie's judgment to pick his leadership team. But the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee demanded answers on why James Byrne was ousted as the VA deputy secretary.

In a statement Monday, Wilkie said only that Byrne, who served in the Marine Reserves and left as a lieutenant colonel, was fired "due to a loss of confidence in Mr. Byrne's ability to carry out his duties. This decision is effective immediately."

A department spokeswoman declined to state the reasons for Byrne's dismissal but said it had "absolutely nothing to do" with the VA Inspector General's recent rebuke of Wilkie over his comments on allegations of sexual assault at the Washington, D.C, VA Medical Center last September.

Related: VA Deputy Secretary Fired After Less Than 5 Months on Job

Wilkie is likely to be pressed on Byrne's dismissal at a news conference he has planned Wednesday at the National Press Club.

In a statement on Byrne's ouster, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, the new chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said of Wilkie, "I trust his judgment during this process."

He added, "As chairman, I will advise and work with Secretary Wilkie to fill this important position and ensure the VA is as efficient and effective as possible for our veterans."

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, the ranking member of the committee, said in a statement that he also is confident in Wilkie's judgment, adding that the secretary appears to be carrying out his responsibility to "ensure we have strong leadership at the Department of Veterans Affairs."

Rep. Mark Takano, D-California, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, took a different stance and immediately called on Wilkie to explain why he fired Byrne, who had been deputy secretary for five months and previously served as the VA's general counsel.

Takano, who was criticized by Wilkie last month for supporting Navy Reserve Lt. Andrea Goldstein, a congressional staffer, in her claim of sexual assault at the Washington VA, said Americans deserved to know the reason behind Byrne’s dismissal.

"I have many questions about what Deputy Secretary Byrne's firing means for our veterans and VA as a whole," he said in a statement.

However, Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tennessee, the ranking member of the House committee, said in a statement that Wilkie "must have a leadership team that he can trust," while thanking Byrne "for his years of service, both in uniform and out."

The Goldstein case resulted in an unusual rebuke for Wilkie from VA Inspector General Michael Missal over the secretary's characterization of the IG and Justice Department finding that there was insufficient evidence to proceed with charges.

In a letter last month to Takano, Wilkie appeared to claim vindication for the VA, which has posted signs and warnings against veteran-on-veteran sexual harassment at its facilities.

"We believe that VA is a safe place for all veterans to enter and receive care and services, but the unsubstantiated claims raised by you and your staff could deter our veterans from seeking the care they need and deserve," he wrote in his letter to Takano.

Following the release of the letter, Missal wrote to Wilkie on Jan. 16, "Neither I nor my staff told you or anyone else at the Department that the allegations were unsubstantiated.

"Reaching a decision to close the investigation with no criminal charges does not mean that the underlying allegation is unsubstantiated," he continued.

Missal added that he had specifically told Byrne and VA Chief of Staff Pamela Powers "that the investigation had been closed without charges and that no other characterization could or should be made regarding the outcome of the investigation."

Only hours before Byrne's firing, Goldstein published her first reaction to Wilkie's letter to Takano on the website Jezebel.com.

Goldstein, who alleged that another veteran rubbed up against her and used suggestive language last September at the Washington VA hospital, said that Wilkie in his letter to Takano had "used coded language, but the words still stung."

"The Secretary of the second-largest federal agency knew how his words would resonate," she wrote.

"He was implying that a fellow Navy veteran was a liar. He was implying that I was a liar."

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

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