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Veteran groups intervene in fired Phoenix VA director lawsuit

By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 26, 2016

WASHINGTON — A dozen veteran and military groups have entered the legal fight with former Department of Veterans Affairs executive Sharon Helman in hopes they can salvage a law allowing the department to fire top managers more quickly.

A federal appeals court this month allowed the Veterans of Foreign Wars, AMVETS, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and nine other groups to join the lawsuit between Helman and the VA. They argue the law used to fire her is constitutional and should be upheld.

The outcome will determine the future of the 2014 law that allows executives to be terminated in three weeks with no option for an appeal and was part of an effort by Congress to root out a “corrosive” management culture after the VA’s national wait-time scandal. The VA announced it would abandoned the law in June — potentially handing Helman a win in court — because the Justice Department decided it violated the rights of the roughly 300 executives employed by the sprawling department.

“This ruling is an important win for us,” the attorney for the veteran and military groups, Michael Morley, wrote in an email to Stars and Stripes. “Most basically, it shows that the court takes our arguments seriously and will not invalidate the [law] without considering them.”

If the groups prevail, the VA could continue to expedite its firings of executives guilty of wrongdoing, which supporters including veterans groups hope will help fix the troubled department. Otherwise, Helman could win her lawsuit and the VA will return to the previous firing guidelines used for all federal executives.

Morley, when reached by phone Monday, said the court has allowed the groups’ argument that the streamlined firings are constitutional to be added into the lawsuit. Now, Helman and the VA will likely file responses with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in the coming weeks and there could be oral arguments heard in December or January, he said.

The lawsuit also includes the National Association for Uniformed Services, Reserve Officers Association, Non-Commissioned Officers Association, Marine Corps League, Army Reserve Association, Marine Corps Reserve Association, U.S. Army Warrant Officers Association, Special Forces Association and Jewish War Veterans of the United States.

The lawsuit also includes the National Association for Uniformed Services, Reserve Officers Association, Non-Commissioned Officers Association, Marine Corps League, Army Reserve Association, Marine Corps Reserve Association, U.S. Army Warrant Officers Association, Special Forces Association and Jewish War Veterans of the United States.

Helman is suing the VA over her firing in 2014 when she was director of its Phoenix hospital system. A whistleblowing doctor triggered a national scandal with claims that veterans in Phoenix had died while waiting for care. Federal audits found secret wait lists were kept there and at VA health care facilities across the country to hide long delays.

Helman was ultimately fired for accepting thousands of dollars in gifts that included a paid trip to a Disney theme park and concert tickets. An appeals judge found in December 2014 that the VA did not have grounds to fire Helman for the wait-time issues.

But the law used to fire her quickly has been at the center of the case.

In the wake of the 2014 scandal, Congress passed the new rule streamlining the firing of executives implicated in wrongdoing. It allowed an administrative judge to make a final decision on a termination appeal within 21 days and included no option for a further appeal.

Like other federal executives, VA managers had been able to appeal their termination to the Merit Systems Protection Board in a process that could typically take months.

Concerns over the legality of the quick firings bubbled up even before the law was passed and the VA later told Congress it had misgivings.

The firing rule suffered a major blow in May when the Justice Department said denying any appeal after an administrative judge’s decision violates executives’ due process rights and is unconstitutional.

The VA followed in June with the announcement that it would no longer fire executives using the expedited rules.

tritten.travis@stripes.com
Twitter: @Travis_Tritten

Sharon Helman, then-director of the Spokane Veterans Affairs Medical Center, is seen on May 14, 2009, attending a conference with Navy officials in Spokane, Wash.
LEWIS HUNSAKER/U.S. NAVY

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