WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs officials for the second time this year fired the director of the department’s medical center in the nation’s capitol, this time using new accountability measures passed by Congress this summer.
The case now becomes the first major test of those new firing rules, signed into law by President Donald Trump in June and heralded by supporters as a way to clean up a culture of corruption at VA. But union officials have been skeptical of the changes, saying shortened appeals times and broader authorities for political appointees may result in legal challenges.
Brian Hawkins, who had been director of the medical center since 2011, was originally fired in July but reinstated as a VA employee just a few weeks later after the Merit Systems Protection Board halted the firing while they reviewed assertions that he was wrongfully terminated under existing federal employment laws.
Hawkins had been reassigned to administrative work in April after reports that patients at the medical center — just a few miles from Capitol Hill — were being endangered by widespread problems of lost medical supplies, unsanitary conditions and systemic mismanagement. Later investigations found that Hawkins shared sensitive medical information with his wife in unsecured email accounts.
After his reinstatement, VA Secretary David Shulkin issued a statement indicating he would look into other ways to dismiss the embattled supervisor.
“No judge who has never run a hospital and never cared for our nation’s veterans will force me to put an employee back in a position when he allowed the facility to pose potential safety risks to our Veterans,” he said in a statement.
On Wednesday, Shulkin called using the new firing authorities to dismiss Hawkins again “the right decision for veterans in D.C. and employees at the medical center.”
Hawkins was informed in late August of VA’s intention to dismiss him again, in keeping with the new appeals procedures. Neither he nor his attorneys have issued public statements on whether he will fight the decision again.
VA officials said that before the new accountability measure became law, the timeline for firing employees stretched to more than 50 days because of notification and appeals rules. With the new changes, that time should be cut in half.
In addition, the VA secretary now has authority to reprimand or fire senior executives through a 21-day internal department grievance procedure, replacing a previous process ruled unconstitutional earlier this year. VA officials can also recoup certain bonuses from former employees found guilty of wrongdoing in some cases.
Hawkins’ firing is not the first use of the new accountability rules, but is the highest-profile firing under the new authorities thus far.
Since Trump’s inauguration, VA officials have fired more than 875 employees, most under authorities in place for years.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.