Pentagon & Congress

Delayed firing of a porn-watching VA staffer could speed up new accountability legislation

WASHINGTON — Republican lawmakers backing new firing rules for Veterans Affairs employees received a boost this weekend when the department's secretary endorsed the plan and says he needs quick action on the issue.

But whether the high-profile push produces different results than past efforts remains unclear, since Democrats can still stall the effort in the Senate.

The endorsement from VA Secretary David Shulkin came after a report from department officials Friday that they are working to fire a Houston-based staffer who was caught viewing pornography while tending to a patient. Because of current federal laws, the employee will receive at least one month's pay while the appeals process plays out.

Shulkin called that unacceptable.

"This is an example of why we need accountability legislation as soon as possible," he said in a statement. "Current legislation in Congress reduces the amount of time we have to wait before taking action. I look forward to working with both the Senate and the House to ensure final legislation gives us the flexibility we need."

In an appearance on Fox News on Sunday, Shulkin reiterated that message.

"We're taking a hard stance that we want this employee removed, and we do not believe the current rules allow us to do that quickly enough," he said. "We need changes in the law, and I need the authority to remove these people immediately."

In his two-month tenure as VA Secretary, Shulkin has promised a host of reforms at the 360,000-employee bureaucracy, but only asked for quick legislative actions on a few issues. His advocacy for new accountability legislation puts the issue on level with an extension of the Choice Card program and simplifying processes for veterans seeking private medical care.

That's welcome news to Republicans on Capitol Hill, who have focused on the issue in recent years as one of the biggest obstacles to VA reform efforts.

"The time for talking about accountability is over," said Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn. and chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee. "This situation underscores the need for Congress to get VA accountability legislation to President Trump's desk."

His Senate counterpart, Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said the porn-viewing incident is "exactly why we need to put in place accountability measures" and said he is "committed to working with my colleagues to pass legislation to accomplish this goal."

But Isakson's statement stopped short of specifically endorsing the House-passed "VA Accountability First Act," which advanced largely along party lines last month. Union officials have raised concerns about severely curtailing the appeals process for employees who feel they were wrongfully fired, and for creating a separate set of federal employment rules solely for VA workers.

Democratic attempts to amend the legislation were rejected in the House, but similar changes are likely in the Senate, where Republicans can't force a vote without drawing some opposition party support.

Shulkin’s predecessor, VA Secretary Bob McDonald, promised new accountability measures during President Obama’s tenure, but did not advocate for similar Republican-backed measures when it became clear Obama would not sign a measure seen as anti-union.

Democrats in the Senate have said they are committed to increasing accountability at the department but also have expressed concerns about some of the House bill’s provisions.

Veterans groups have largely backed the bill, at least in general, but not included the measure in their most pressing needs for the department. Most have focused on access to medical care and mental health expansions as more critical needs for the department.

The exception has been Concerned Veterans for America, which has ties to prominent conservative groups and has made accountability its main focus in recent years.

In a statement Sunday, CVA Executive Director Mark Lucas said Shulkin should be applauded for "acknowledging that systemic reforms are needed at the VA and demanding accountability now."

He added "at this point, there is no excuse for the Senate to not move this bill to a vote as soon as possible."

No hearing has been scheduled on the issue in the Senate yet. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is the sponsor of mirror legislation in that chamber, and pushed for similar reforms last session. The Senate is scheduled to start a two-week spring break at the end of this week.

Shulkin — who in a TV interview earlier this year vowed that he’d fire VA employees who "don’t show up to work, who do cocaine or who are watching porn at work" — said he wants the new authorities as soon as possible.

"We are very serious," he said in the Fox interview. "We are going to be making significant changes at VA, and we are not tolerating employees that deviate from the values of caring for veterans."

Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at lshane@militarytimes.com.

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