First Agency to Post Disciplinary Activities

By Sandra Basu

WASHINGTON—With persistent questions of accountability and transparency dogging VA in recent years, the agency became the first federal agency to post public information on disciplinary actions taken against employees.

“Veterans and taxpayers have a right to know what we’re doing to hold our employees accountable and make our personnel actions transparent. Posting this information online for all to see, and updating it weekly, will do just that,” VA Secretary David Shulkin, MD, announced in a written statement.

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The list consists of adverse employee actions taken since Jan. 20. This information is posted at http://www.va.gov/accountability and will be updated weekly, according to the agency.

The VA explained that the adverse action list does not include employee names, although it provides information on the position, VA region or administration and type of adverse or disciplinary action taken.

The list, which was first made available last month, includes terminations, demotions and suspensions since the new administration came into office Jan. 20. More categories of punishment will be added in the future, according to the agency.

The 26-page list posted online as of July 3 included hundreds of employees disciplined or removed, including cemetery caretakers, registered nurses, medical support assistants, and physicians, among others.

In a related matter, Shulkin said that he is requiring approval by a senior official of any monetary settlement with an employee over the amount of $5,000.

“Taxpayers need to know that we will engage in good faith settlement negotiations, where required by third parties, but will look to settle with employees only when they clearly have been wronged or when settlement is otherwise in veterans’ and taxpayers’ best interests, and not as a matter of ordinary business,” Shulkin said.

VA Accountability

Shulkin called the new public list a “follow-on” to the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, which was signed by the president at the end of June.

That new law makes it easier for VA to remove, demote or suspend (for longer than 14 days) any VA employee for poor performance or misconduct with a shortened timeline. It also bars VA from using this removal authority if the employee has an open whistleblower complaint/case with the Office of Special Counsel.

In addition, it provides the secretary with the authority to reduce an employee’s federal pension if they are convicted of a felony that influenced their job at VA. It also allows the secretary to recoup a bonus provided to an employee who engaged in misconduct or poor performance prior to receiving the bonus and to take back any relocation expenses under certain circumstances, such as fraud waste or malfeasance that were authorized for an employee.

Shulkin had been pushing for Congress to pass the bill.

“It’s common sense we need to hold our employees accountable for their actions if they violate the public trust, and at the same time protect whistleblowers from retaliation. This legislation will help us do just that,” he said.

Prior to passage of the bill, lawmakers had tried unsuccessfully in previous years to pass accountability legislation but could not come to agreement. The most-recent legislation passed the House with the support of 231 Republicans and 137 Democrats.

“There is no doubt this has been a challenging piece of legislation, but thanks to the leadership of members on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers we were able to find good compromises and come up with a strong piece of legislation that will improve the veteran experience at VA facilities across the country,” said VA Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Ranking Member Rep. Tim Walz (D-MN) after the bill was signed into law.

The bill was supported by several advocacy groups.

“Given that the scandal in Phoenix alerted the country to the outrageous state of the VA health care system nearly three years ago, this change is long overdue,” said Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of American (IAVA) founder and CEO Paul Rieckhoff.

Vietnam Veterans of America National President John Rowan said the organization was “especially pleased to see improved protections for whistleblowers.”

On the other hand, Randy Erwin, national president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, voiced his displeasure with the bill.

“Weakening VA employee protections will not make the VA more accountable; it will likely do the exact opposite,” he said. “It is clear that Congress wanted to do something to increase accountability at the VA, and I share in that desire, but eliminating worker protections was not the right approach. History will not look back favorably on what this bill does or how it was rammed through Congress by politicians desperate to put a feather in their cap.”