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Justice Department undercuts VA explanations on not firing executives

By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 5, 2014

WASHINGTON — The VA says it has held off for months on firing top management linked to a nationwide health care scandal because of ongoing criminal probes by the Department of Justice.

But the DOJ this week told House investigators it takes no position on the VA firing disgraced Phoenix hospital director Sharon Helman and others who were in charge while hundreds of veteran hospitals and clinics manipulated patient data.

House and Senate lawmakers have hammered the Department of Veterans Affairs on the lack of firings three months after Congress passed a $16.3-billion overhaul law, which included a provision allowing Secretary Bob McDonald to fire senior executives at will, replacing a process that often took months with one that takes just four weeks.

The VA told the House Veterans Affairs Committee it was asked by the DOJ to wait on terminations until criminal probes were completed. But the DOJ denied that when questioned by the committee in the run-up to a Capitol Hill hearing on the issue.

“The Department of Justice takes no position concerning whether the employment matters … should proceed or be stayed,” according to a Nov. 3 DOJ email to the House committee, obtained by Stars and Stripes.

The VA declined to answer questions about its reasons for delaying employee terminations in light of the DOJ statement or provide any example of an executive who has been fired using the new law.

The DOJ and the FBI, along with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel and the VA inspector general, are conducting more than 100 criminal and administrative investigations, according to the VA.

“When evidence of wrongdoing is discovered, VA will hold employees accountable and take action as quickly as law and due process allows,” department spokeswoman Linda West wrote in an email.

West said the agency has “proposed disciplinary action” against more than 40 of its employees for data manipulation and patient care since June.

The VA made a string of announcements in September and October about managers it recommended for termination but it remains unclear how many have actually been fired.

Helman remains on paid administrative leave six months after she was found at the epicenter of the nationwide scandal over VA doctoring electronic wait-time records to mask long and sometimes dangerous treatment delays, according to Senate and House lawmakers who have complained. Agency audits have substantiated the data manipulation in Phoenix but were unable to determine whether it was indeed responsible for veteran deaths — a conclusion that has drawn controversy since.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said the agency has the evidence needed to fire Helman and that keeping her and other executives connected to wrongdoing on the payroll is a waste of taxpayer money.

“The Department of Justice has already said it doesn’t mind if Helman is fired, so VA’s excuses as to why taxpayers must continue to pay her nearly $170,000 a year for doing nothing are simply hot air,” he said in a written statement.

The VA would not say whether it still employs Terry Gerigk Wolf, the former director of the VA health care system in Pittsburgh who oversaw a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that killed at least six patients and sickened many others.

The agency’s Office of Accountability Review, which was created by McDonald to root out a culture of corruption, determined Wolf should be fired on Oct. 3 — a process that could be completed by now under the new VA termination law — but the VA appears to have given her more time to appeal, according to the Tribune-Review newspaper.

tritten.travis@stripes.com
Twitter: @Travis_Tritten

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Bob McDonald at the VA's headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 8, 2014.
Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes

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