WASHINGTON — A group of House Democrats is calling for the Office of Special Counsel to launch a full investigation into acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Peter O’Rourke for what they believe are politically motivated firings at the department, a possible violation of federal law.
In a letter to the independent prosecutorial agency, nine Democratic members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee said they have been informed of career employees at VA being “removed, demoted, or reassigned for political reasons, or they resigned after being made aware of adverse personnel actions coming their way for political reasons.”
The positions include staffers in the office of the VA Secretary, the protocol office, the Center for Women Veterans and the Center for Minority Veterans, among other posts. The move comes just a few weeks after a high-profile fight between O’Rourke and the department’s inspector general, in which department leadership accused the watchdog of casting VA in a negative light.
In a statement, committee ranking member Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., called the moves a potential dismantling of veterans services based on the administration’s political whims.
“If these reports are true, then what Donald Trump and Acting Secretary O’Rourke are doing has absolutely nothing to do with serving veterans and everything to do with advancing a political agenda centered around the privatization of key VA programs and services,” he said.
“What’s more, not only would it be morally reprehensible for Acting Secretary O’Rourke to use of his temporary status to reshape the VA workforce for partisan gain, it could also constitute a violation of federal law.”
The move comes a day after a Washington Post report that numerous career VA workers — some of whom worked in multiple presidential administrations — have been dismissed or demoted in recent weeks without any apparent reason.
When confronted on the issue at a Capitol Hill hearing earlier this week, O’Rourke said the moves were for “organizational efficiency,” not because of poor performance.
“When you have an office that's not performing the way it needs to, that doesn't always mean that a person was committing misconduct of some sort,” he said. “This means that we're not getting the performance or the efficiency out of that organization that we need, and then sometimes it requires a change in leadership.”
O’Rourke also said that none of the individuals involved in the reorganization were asked to leave, but in some cases “we found that there really wasn't an alignment at all with where the VA was going” and “I'm surprised they stayed as long as they did.”
The Democrats who petitioned the special counsel’s office said the moves may violate federal law prohibiting disciplinary action against employees for political affiliations.
They have also expressed concerns that the moves are happening under O’Rourke, who has served as acting secretary for less than two months is expected to vacate the role in coming weeks, pending a confirmation vote for Robert Wilkie to take over as permanent VA Secretary.
The recent firings aren’t the first time that President Donald Trump’s political appointees within the department have been accused of working to undermine operations there.
Former VA Secretary David Shulkin, fired from his post in March, had repeatedly accused operatives in the White House and at VA headquarters of working to undermine his tenure over policy disagreements, particularly moves to shift more VA health care dollars into private-sector practices.
A month after his firing, after additional leadership turmoil at the bureaucracy, VA spokesman Curt Cashour issued a statement noting that the department “is now firmly aligned with President Trump and his priorities” and “In a number of cases, employees who were wedded to the status quo and not on board with this administration’s policies or pace of change have now departed VA.”
VA Deputy Secretary Thomas Bowman retired from his post last month, after months of speculation over his job security. Administration officials have not filled the Under Secretary for Health job since Trump took office.
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.