Watchdog Warnings of VA Employees with Criminal Backgrounds Prompt Key Senator to Push for Fixes

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., speaks on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, March 12, 2024, in Washington. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo)

Following years of watchdog reports revealing shortfalls in background checks for Department of Veterans Affairs employees and contractors, including a report last month on contractors with criminal records, a top senator is demanding the department deliver him an action plan to do better by next month.

As the inspector general and Government Accountability Office "have clearly articulated time and time again, through inadequate screening processes for employees ranging from direct care providers, to security personnel, to contracted child care providers, VA is placing the health and safety of veterans, their families, the public, and your workforce as a whole, at unacceptable risk," Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., the ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, wrote in a letter Tuesday to VA Secretary Denis McDonough.

"By April 19, please provide me with your comprehensive plan, to include any legislative needs, to make certain VA's workforce will be screened and held to the highest professional standards," Moran added.

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Moran's letter comes after a February report from the VA's inspector general that found the department was not complying with its own policies on background checks for contractors, putting the health and safety of veterans and other employees at risk.

For example, at the St. Cloud VA Medical Center in Minnesota, none of its 73 contractors employed as security guards had been vetted, and the inspector general found that 38 of them had criminal records.

"The criminal records included arrests and convictions ranging from petty misdemeanors to felonies such as disorderly conduct, domestic abuse, physical and sexual assault, financial card fraud, and terroristic threats," the IG report said. "During the performance of the contract, VA police, St. Cloud officials and the VA OIG were notified about improper behavior by the unvetted contractor employees, including stalking female VA and contractor employees, sexually harassing and assaulting other employees, getting into altercations at the medical center that required police intervention, and bragging to coworkers about being a gang member."

Of 286 total contracted employees reviewed by the IG, there was no evidence 215 had completed a fingerprint check, and no evidence 225 had completed any background check, according to the report.

February's IG report comes after years of similar findings by the same office and the Government Accountability Office.

A March 2018 IG investigation found the Veterans Health Administration was not ensuring background investigation requirements were being met at medical facilities nationwide, and a September 2023 IG report found the same issues still existed.

The IG in September 2021 also concluded that a proper background check could have flagged a nursing assistant who was convicted of killing at least seven patients.

Meanwhile, in several reports in recent years, the GAO has found that VA guidance doesn't have directions for conducting oversight of service contracts, that the department has failed to identify potentially more than 12,000 employees with drug-related criminal histories, and that several facilities had hired providers whose licenses had been revoked because the facilities were unaware of policies about revoked licenses.

The February IG report called for the deputy VA secretary to develop fresh policies and procedures for vetting contractors. In a response included in the report, the VA said its human resources office had already developed "standardized" vetting processes and that "various policies and clauses are continuously reviewed and updated in the normal course of business, as necessary."

In his letter, Moran derided that response as a "bureaucratic nothing-to-see-here dismissal of a well-founded and critically necessary recommendation by VA's inspector general."

Moran requested that McDonough be personally involved in crafting a plan to fix the vetting issues, arguing that subordinate offices were responsible for the problems revealed in the watchdog reports.

"When our government oversight partners disclose serious deficiencies in VA's ability to manage its workforce, VA leadership should provide an explanation and commit to own the shortcomings until they are rectified," Moran wrote to McDonough. "The numerous reports referenced above clearly demonstrate that your personal leadership is necessary to ensure the safety and well-being of veterans, the American public as a whole, and VA's workforce."

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