Pentagon & Congress

Justice Department's influence in VA cases up for debate

When Congress passed new rules for firing Veterans Affairs executives in July, the goal was to get rid of problem employees faster and without bureaucratic confusion. So far, it's done neither.

Now Justice Department officials are distancing themselves from the issue, even as both sides point to behind-the-scenes agency comments as proof that the other side is playing politics.

Department spokesmen are refusing official comment on whether Justice investigators have asked to keep administrators employed while criminal investigations into their actions continue.

VA Secretary Bob McDonald insists they have.

Congressional staffers insist they have not.

Only one senior VA executive has been fired in recent months, despite the new authority approved by Congress in late July. Lawmakers have blasted McDonald for not using his new power, saying it calls into question whether his promises of more accountability are sincere.

Commentary: VA accountability needed to restore trust

In particular, critics have focused on the continued employment of former Phoenix VA system director Sharon Helman, on administrative leave more more than 190 days while investigations continue into allegations she gamed patient wait time records to protect administrative bonuses.

"VA's excuses as to why taxpayers must continue to pay her nearly $170,000 a year for doing nothing are simply hot air," House Veterans' Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said earlier this week.

"If VA wants to rebuild its reputation with veterans and the prospective health care employees it says it needs, then it should stop making excuses for the villains of the VA scandal and get serious about purging them from the payroll."

On Thursday, McDonald accused critics of playing politics, saying the laws regarding dismissal and employee appeals are "very clear." As long as criminal investigations are ongoing, firing employees could undermine future prosecution or administrative action.

"I'm skeptical whether members of Congress don't understand the law," he said during a reporters roundtable Thursday. "Why is it in my interest to go slow on disciplinary action?"

But McDonald would not say whether Justice Department officials have asked him to continue Helman's employment until they make a decision on criminal charges.

In a letter circulated by House Veterans' Affairs Committee staffers, a Justice Department official said no such request was made, and no department regulation prohibits McDonald from firing any individuals.

Justice officials refused to verify whether the letter was agency policy or incorrect information.

Since June, VA has proposed disciplinary action against more than 40 employees nationwide related to data manipulation or patient care problems. McDonald said more than 100 other investigations by the VA inspector general, FBI, Justice Department and Office of Special Counsel are ongoing.

He has pledged repeatedly to take "aggressive and expedient action" as soon as possible against any problem employees. But he has also stated that if lawmakers are unhappy with current employment laws, they need to pass new ones that better respond to the problem.

Members of Congress think they already did that, back in July. They're expected to hold hearings on the issue in coming weeks.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department has given no public timetable for when its investigations will conclude.

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