By Leo Shane III
Military Times Staff writer
Oct. 9, 2014 - 12:37PM
Four Veterans Affairs senior executives being dismissed this month are the first to face the department’s controversial new firing authorities, approved by Congress in July.
VA leaders are also promising they won’t be the last.
The four — VA’s deputy chief procurement officer and facility directors from Pittsburgh, Alabama and Georgia — have all been the subject of investigations into mismanagement and records manipulation.
The Georgia executive had already announced his retirement. The other three were given notice of VA’s intent to fire them, starting the clock on their appeal process. A final decision must be ruled on by the Merit Systems Protection Board within a month.
But VA Secretary Robert McDonald has said that as more investigations conclude, more firings will follow. Department leaders have spent recent months emphasizing accountability in reaction to the VA scandals earlier this year, where workers were found covering up lengthy wait times for patients and manipulating records to cover up the problem.
Congress passed the new firing authority in an effort to speed up the process of dismissing problem executives, and lawmakers have complained that McDonald has moved too slow to use the new power.
But the new secretary has argued that employees still have due process rights, and asked for patience while investigations conclude.
More than 100 cases related to malfeasance at VA facilities have been opened by the department’s inspector general, the Office of Special Counsel and the FBI, with most expected to be completed in coming weeks.
This week, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said he’s concerned that VA senior leaders still appear slow to get rid of those problem employees, saying the public announcement of firing plans “appears to be giving failing executives an opportunity to quit, retire or find new jobs without consequence.”
“If any current laws or regulations are impeding the department’s ability to swiftly hold employees accountable, VA leaders must work with Congress so those laws and regulations can be changed,” he said in a statement.
In response, VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson released a statement defending the pace of the firings.
“If Congress wants VA to implement a different law, it should pass one,” he said. “Until then, VA will use the authority it has been given fully and responsibly to protect the health, safety, and well-being of our nation’s veterans while at the same time ensuring that disciplinary actions are based on the best possible evidence ... so that these actions stick.”
Outside legal advocates — including MSPB appointees — have already questioned the constitutionality of the new firing rules, saying the appeals processing time is too short and takes away established appeals options.
But McDonald has praised the new authority as an important tool, and one he plans to use.
The new firing rules cover only VA senior executives, fewer than 500 of the department’s roughly 340,000 employees. The ongoing investigations have looked at the practices of not just supervisors and senior executives but also lower-level workers, and criticized individuals at nearly every level for the ongoing failures.