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Lawmakers Grill VA Deputy Secretary Over Slow Firings

Slam inadequate implementation of reform legislation

Sloan Gibson
Sloan Gibson / AP
• November 13, 2014 3:25 pm

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Members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee on Thursday grilled Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs Sloan Gibson about the inadequate implementation of legislation intended to reform the agency.

"The events of the last year have proven that far too many senior VA leaders have lied, manipulated data, or simply failed to do the job for which they were hired. It is also clear that VA’s attempt to instill accountability for these leaders has been both nearly non-existent and rife with self-inflicted roadblocks to the reform that each of us expects. … I am both perplexed and disappointed at the pace at which employees have, in fact, been held accountable," said Chairman Jeff Miller (R., Fla.).

"It is clear that the secretary, and those advising him, remain confused on what the law actually does, which is much more than simply reduce the appeal time."

The House and Senate passed the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014, or the Choice Act, in July and President Obama signed the legislation into law in early August.

The law was intended to make it easier to fire senior officials, but in recent weeks, Republicans in the House and Senate have criticized the agency for not firing more executives. Gibson maintained that the VA is doing all it can.

"The new law," Gibson said, "does shorten the time to resolve an appeal. The law does not give VA leaders the authority to remove executives at will. Any removal must still meet stringent evidentiary standards and provide due process."

Republicans argued that the delays are ultimately self-imposed because the agency independently decided to add a five-day period where employees are able to respond to the notification of their proposed firing before the removal and appeals process officially begins.

"There was a thirty day requirement for notice, before you removed an employee … and we, in the law, removed that," Miller said, quoting from the legislation. "So where did the five days come from?"

The five days, according to Gibson, were implemented at the advice of legal counsel.

"The view is that if we fail to provide that opportunity to respond that the [Merit System Protection Board] will view that as failure to provide due process and therefore overturn the decision [to remove the employee]."

Gibson told the committee some executives have been fired, but did not provide a specific number. He also testified that none of the employees on administrative leave have seen their pay suspended.

One executive that continues to receive pay, much to the ire of lawmakers, is Sharon Helman, a key figure in the manipulation of wait times at the Phoenix facility.

Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D., Ariz.) addressed Helman’s employment, telling Gibson, "I find it outrageous, and my constituents find it outrageous, that Sharon Helman is still collecting her salary of $170,000 after being put on leave in May. And we just want you to know that we’re calling for her immediate firing. We want that to happen immediately."

Published under: Veterans Affairs