WASHINGTON — When two members of Congress took a shot at the Department of Veterans Affairs in an op-ed last week, management decided it was not going to duck and cover.
Rather than issue another string of VA mea culpas, as the agency has appropriately done for the cover-up of excessive patient wait times, Deputy Secretary Sloan D. Gibson is punching back.
Gibson defended the VA in an interview with the Federal Diary, as he rejected the perception of unpunished corrupt employees failing to serve those who sacrificed for the nation.
"Did we find instances of misconduct? Yes we did," he said. "Did we hold people accountable? Yes we did. Was there widespread corruption across the department? Actually, no there wasn't."
That will bring little comfort to the parade of agency whistleblowers who have complained of management retaliation after they reported misconduct. Nor is it likely to sway members of Congress from both parties who have criticized the department for phony appointment records that made it appear veterans received service more promptly than they did. And it certainly will not appease the vets who had long waits for health care.
While Gibson acknowledged problems, he sought to place them in a less critical light - poor training, instead of rampant wrongdoing, as Sen. Jerry Moran, from Kansas, and Rep. Jeff Miller, from Florida, both Republicans, did in their article.
The headline on the Wall Street Journal piece accuses VA leadership of "chronic indifference" toward the scandal that severely damaged the agency's reputation. Moran and Miller are on their chambers' VA committees, with Miller chairing the House panel.
Miller, in particular, has been key in exposing the cover-up and reprisals against whistleblowers during a relentless series of hearings. His sessions and those in the Senate were instrumental in running the previous VA secretary, Eric K. Shinseki, out of office. At the same time, veterans have generally praised the care the VA provides, once they get it.
Noting the time passed since July 2014, when current Secretary Bob McDonald promised to transform the VA during his confirmation hearing, the authors charged "VA's culture of indifference persists, and the climate of accountability Mr. McDonald promised is nowhere in sight. . .
"It is now clear that the VA's most-serious problems are rooted in its leaders' routine and pervasive refusal to seriously discipline those who have engaged in proven incompetence, corruption and malfeasance."
Miller's and Moran's first complaint says "110 VA medical facilities across the country maintained secret lists to hide long waits for care," leading to the firing of three low-level workers, but no senior executives.
Gibson said information on those cases was sent to the department's inspector general's (IG) office, which so far has provided reports and evidence on 77 of them. In only six of those facilities did the IG find intentional misconduct, according to Gibson. Last month, he told Miller's committee the department later substantiated misuse of scheduling data at four other locations and is looking at evidence of two more.
Gibson rejects the statement that 110 facilities maintained secret waiting lists.
"That's been repeated over and over and over again," he said during the interview, exasperation in his voice. "What happens, after it has been repeated so many times it becomes the truth.
"It is simply not the truth."
With innuendo, rumor and "outright erroneous assertions," the court of public opinion has convicted the department and its employees, he continued with increasing passion. "It's frankly wrong."
It is the veterans, who "listen to all this crap," who are hurt most by it, he added, because they might decide not to seek health care they need at the VA.
Twenty-eight employees have been implicated in scheduling improprieties and all have been subject to disciplinary actions, from reprimand to removal, according to Gibson.
To speed that process, Gibson said the VA will no longer wait for the inspector general's office to finish its investigations.
"We're done waiting," he told the House committee. "Where we can collect relevant evidence more quickly and effectively with VA resources, we will do so. Then, where evidence warrants disciplinary action, we'll take action." Instead of placing employees under investigation on administrative leave, they will be given other duties.
Miller has repeatedly criticized the department for not firing senior executives. He spearheaded the law that facilitates their termination process by sharply undermining their workplace due process rights.
Gibson said efforts that single out a particular agency "are inappropriate" and create problems in attracting and retaining top talent, senior executives who can go to other agencies and have the full set of rights and protections generally available to federal employees.
The House has an answer for that disparity - slash rights for all senior executives.
Legislation advanced last week by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee would spread "expedited removal" across the government's senior executive workforce.
Miller and Moran complained that incompetent and corrupt VA employees get a "free pass." Now Congress is moving to make adequate and fair due process for all senior executives a thing of the past.