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Secretary: VA cannot fire officials while investigations continue

By HEATH DRUZIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 6, 2014

WASHINGTON — The secretary of Veterans Affairs fired another shot in the battle over the continued employment of senior officials at the center of a national scandal, saying he cannot dismiss them while criminal investigations are ongoing.

That contradicts what a Justice Department official told congressional committee investigators, as first reported by Stars and Stripes. That official said the Department of Justice “takes no position” on such employment matters.

But when questioned Thursday at a reporter’s roundtable, Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald said his hands are tied.

“We need to wait for the FBI to finish their investigations before we can act,” he said.

The Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who is among a group in Congress who have criticized the lack of firings, said the secretary is using the DOJ criminal probes as a “smokescreen” to cover a lack of action.

“They can continue the [criminal] investigation after they fire them,” McCain told Stars and Stripes. “We gave him the authority in the law — for bad performance, not criminal behavior — to have the ability to get rid of them, so that was the clear understanding.”

The VA has been embroiled in scandal since whistleblowers reported the existence of secret wait lists and records manipulation at a Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care system. Subsequent investigation revealed similar problems nationwide and cost former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki his job.

The VA has been under intensifying scrutiny for continuing to pay senior leaders who have been linked to the scandal. In particular, the Phoenix system’s director, Sharon Helman, and her continued employment have come in for heavy criticism. A report by the VA Inspector General’s office accused her of presiding over an office that falsified documents and the creation of secret wait lists to make it appear patient wait times were shorter than they were and recommended she be fired.

She remains on paid leave, collecting her $170,000 salary.

Several other VA officials implicated in wrongdoing have been able to retire before they were fired, meaning they kept benefits they otherwise may have lost. In those cases, McDonald said his hands are tied by the law.

“The law says you can not claw back retirement earned over a career unless a person commits treason or a treasonous-like activity,” he said.

Critics are also saying the VA has missed a deadline for issuing “choice cards” that would allow some veterans to be covered by their benefits for care outside the VA system.

“It’s tragic that not only did the department fail to meet the deadline, but it then chose to paper-over the fact by releasing a letter from Secretary McDonald claiming they are in the process of rolling out the choice card while providing few concrete specifics,” Concerned Veterans of America CEO Pete Hegseth said in a released statement.

The law states that “the Secretary shall, not later than 90 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, issue to each veteran described” in the bill. Nov. 5 marked 90 days after the enactment of the law.

On Thursday, McDonald said the VA is working to roll out the cards responsibly so that veterans are clear about whether they are eligible and denied that they had missed a deadline. The cards are to be sent out in three phases and all are to be mailed out by January, according to a Wednesday blog post by McDonald. The VA has begun mailing cards to the first group, veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility.

“The law didn’t specify specifically,” he said, “which cards would go out on which day or to which addresses.”

druzin.heath@stripes.com
Twitter: @Druzin_Stripes
 

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Bob McDonald attends a Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House on Nov. 6, 2014.
C.J. LIN/STARS AND STRIPES

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