House lawmakers want to know whether Veterans Affairs officials are using employee settlement policies to dismiss problem staffers instead of punishing them and push aside whistleblowers rather than address their allegations.
"In an effort to make the disciplinary process more convenient, VA often agrees to pay out thousands of taxpayer-funded dollars both to the employee and their legal representation, as well as other benefits for the employee to simply just go away," said House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., during a hearing Wednesday.
"I wonder what type of message VA is sending to other good employees when they allow bad employees to settle for thousands of dollars, just because it would be too expensive or embarrassing to litigate."
In response, VA's top lawyer said she does not see signs of abuse within the program but also acknowledged the potential for abuse.
"The use of this tool is not and has not been taken lightly," said VA General Counsel Leigh Bradley. "We also take seriously our obligation to hold employees accountable and … we will not hesitate to litigate appropriate cases."
The inquiry into the practice comes amid news reports of a Puerto Rico VA hospital employee who has been offered up to $300,000 to quit after filing complaints about a supervisor's criminal record. VA officials would not comment directly on the case, saying it could interfere with ongoing personnel matters.
Bradley called such large cash settlements unusual, and said all VA employees have been warned that retaliation against whistleblowers will not be tolerated.
Committee officials said nearly $5 million in employee settlements have been negotiated since July 2014.
In response to charges the settlements were meant to avoid lengthy firing processes, Bradley said that department officials typically avoid "clean record" settlements where workers can leave without any information about problems surrounding their departure appearing in their employment record.
But Miller said 96 percent of the cases the VA provided for committee review included those clean records, raising the question of whether supervisors are more interested in ignoring problems instead of addressing accountability. That drew the ire of several committee members.
"We want justice to be done," said Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo. "If withholding derogatory (employment) info is a negotiating tool in these processes, that seems liable for abuse."
Bradley said the number of settlement cases and processes used by department supervisors are in line with other federal agencies, but officials are using new tools to evaluate VA’s use of the practice for potential future changes.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.