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When VA needed landscaping and snow removal, one employee hired her brother for $1M

STARS AND STRIPES

By EMILY WAX-THIBODEAUX | The Washington Post | Published: February 7, 2018

When the Bedford, Massachusetts, VA Medical Center spent $1 million hiring landscapers and ordering rock salt, mulch and crushed stone, one whistleblower in the department found it suspicious that the supplies never showed up.

Turns out they were never delivered and that an employee had steered the contract to her brother's landscaping business, according to a recent investigation by the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), an independent federal agency that investigates whistleblower claims.

The employee was also allowed to keep her federal job. She was demoted only one pay grade, despite President Donald Trump's VA Accountability Act, which allows quick removal of employees who violate standards or break the law in the troubled agency.

Trump has said that since its passage his administration has already removed "more than 1,500 VA employees who failed to give our veterans the care they deserve — and we are hiring talented people who love our vets as much as we do."

The exact number of VA staffers who have been fired is not clear. The White House and the department have different numbers. An email from a department spokesman said, "VA has fired 1,737 people" since Trump signed the law in June. A White House fact sheet puts the number at 1,470.

But one of those people was apparently not Bedford VA employee Heather Garneau-Harvey, who steered the money for grounds keeping materials to her brother, the OSC report said.

"By allowing an employee who engaged in this conduct to remain with the agency, VA demonstrates a shocking degree of indifference to government ethical standards, procurement regulations, and public integrity," Special Counsel Henry J. Kerner wrote to the president in a recent letter.

Information about the landscaping scheme came to OSC from a persistent whistleblower who led investigators to nearly $1 million in improperly spent or documented purchases at the Bedford VA.

Garneau-Harvey denied knowledge of her family's ownership of the company to criminal investigators. But later emails proved her knowledge, the OSC said. Her father, Dennis Garneau, who was also employed by VA, has resigned.

Helping the financial interest of a family member is a violation of VA and government ethics regulations, the OSC said.

Curt Cashour, press secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs, agreed that the disciplinary action highlighted in this report, "is wholly inappropriate and isn't anywhere close in proportion to the offense that necessitated it. Veterans deserve to know VA will hold employees accountable when the facts demonstrate they have failed to uphold the high standards taxpayers expect from us," he said in an emailed statement.

"That didn't happen here, and as a result we will be reinforcing with each and every VA facility leader the importance of ensuring disciplinary actions correspond appropriately with the misbehavior that warranted them," Cashour said. "We are looking into the actions of the leaders who made the decision not to remove the employee in question and will take whatever action is appropriate after that review, which will be complete by close of business Feb. 9."

Firing federal employees has long been a fraught issue inside VA and entire federal government. President Barack Obama signed a bipartisan 2014 Va reform bill to hasten the firing of VA's senior executives. But it's no longer enforced, following a legal battle.

Under the Trump administration, Congress passed the legislation in June making it easier to fire VA employees and shortening the time they can hold hearings or fight the charges.

But the law's impact on improving accountability at the department remains unclear: VA employees were fired at about the same rate as during Obama's last budget year, for instance, according to VA itself and an Associated Press story fact checking the issue.

"As you can see, since President Trump signed the bill into law, VA has fired 1,737 people," Cashour said in an email.

Under the previous presidential administration, VA fired 2,001 people in 2016. That includes 983 removals and 1,018 removals of people during a one-year probationary period. In 2017, VA fired 2,537 people including 1,443 removals and 1,094 probationary removals.

One egregious example of the difficulty in terminating VA employees came in March, when VA Secretary David Shulkin said he was horrified that he couldn't fire an employee of the Michael DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Houston caught watching pornography while with a patient.

VA immediately removed the employee from patient care and placed the person on administrative duties. But due to what was then the law, the deciding official couldn't make a final determination for 30 days from the date that the proposal for removal was made.

The new law shortens that time to seven days in most cases. Federal unions argue the 30 days are important because employees deserve the time to respond to allegations.
 

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