WASHINGTON — Union officials are calling for a full investigation into a senior Veterans Affairs official who prominently displayed a picture of a Ku Klux Klan leader in his office, accusing department leadership of ignoring the problematic behavior.
“The prominent display of images of Confederate leaders in the workplace is never acceptable,” said J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees. “The actions of this official cross the line, and we’re calling on the VA to get to the bottom of what’s going on within their leadership at this facility.”
On Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that David Thomas Sr., deputy executive director of VA’s Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization, had a picture of Nathan Bedford Forrest — a Confederate general who became the white supremacist group’s first grand wizard — displayed in his office for years.
The picture was removed this week after the newspaper confronted Thomas about racial background of the portrait. Thomas claimed no real knowledge of Forrest’ background, saying he displayed the painting because “it was just a beautiful print that I had purchased, and I thought it was very nice.”
Just two months into his tenure leading VA, the new secretary promised significant culture changes for the department.
Employees in Thomas’ office — which includes numerous African-Americans — have been circulating a petition demanding removal of the painting prior to the news story.
In response, VA spokesman Curt Cashour said Thomas had not received any complaints about the painting prior to the Washington Post story. He said Secretary Robert Wilkie has taken steps to make sure VA is welcoming to all employees, but “achieving the secretary’s goal relies in large part on individual judgment and common sense of employees at all levels.”
“If an employee finds a work of art on display in a private office offensive, the employee should bring it to the attention of his or her supervisor, who will take steps to handle the issue quickly and appropriately as needed. That didn’t happen here. Mr. Thomas received no complaints from his fellow employees and only learned about these concerns from the Washington Post. Mr. Thomas immediately took down the print in question – a work by noted historical artist Don Stivers – and the matter is resolved.”
AFGE officials disagree.
“This is about more than one portrait — this is about ensuring all employees can work free from discrimination and intimidation,” said Jeremy Lannan, head of the union’s civil rights department. “We have serious questions as to whether that’s possible under Mr. Thomas’ leadership.”
AFGE said employees in the office had previously filed three claims of racial discrimination against Thomas, and has requested additional information from the department on the office’s morale and disciplinary actions.
Administration officials have repeatedly hailed the measure, but critics call it demoralizing and unfair to lower-level VA employees.
The union has been a frequent critic of President Donald Trump and VA management in recent years, opposing a host of moves designed to more easily fire civil employees and limit union officials work on behalf of members during work hours.
Thomas began working at VA in 2013, during former President Barack Obama’s administration. The Washington Post report said employees complained that Thomas displayed the painting in previous offices before his most recent promotion to the deputy executive director role.