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DOJ to VA: You Can Go Ahead and Fire Phoenix Official

VA Secretary doubles down on claim that he has to wait until DOJ concludes investigation

Sharon Helman, the former director of the Phoenix VA Health Care / AP
• November 6, 2014 5:25 pm

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Officials at the Department of Justice (DOJ) say they have not asked the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) to refrain from terminating a top executive tied to the manipulations of appointment wait times and the deaths of numerous veterans, despite statements made by the VA suggesting otherwise.

"As I shared on the phone, based on the information I have received in response to your request, the Department of Justice takes no position concerning whether the employment matters you mention below should proceed or be stayed," the official wrote in a Nov. 3 email to a Congressional staffer.

The email, first reported by Stars and Stripes and now obtained by the Free Beacon, came in response to an October 30 inquiry regarding the employment status of Sharon Helman, the former director of the Phoenix VA Health Care system.

Helman was placed on administrative leave in May following accusations that her management style encouraged administrators at the Phoenix facility to keep a secret list in order to cover up the long wait times veterans encountered before they received care.

Six months later, Helman remains on paid leave, and a spokesman for the agency said that the delay was due to an ongoing DOJ investigation. The new email seemingly refutes that claim, but in a meeting with reporters Thursday afternoon VA Secretary Robert McDonald doubled down on the initial explanation.

According to Stars and Stripes, McDonald said that the agency "need[s] to wait for the FBI to finish their investigations before [it] can act."

The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) exists under the umbrella of the DOJ, and McDonald’s latest claim challenges the one provided to congressional staffers by the DOJ.

Lawmakers have been pressing VA Secretary Robert McDonald to fire more executives tied to the scandal, and in recent weeks have expressed frustration that the employment of Helman, in particular, has not been terminated.

In late October, Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.) sent a letter to VA Secretary Robert McDonald questioning the agency’s implementation of the Veteran Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2016.

The law was signed by President Obama in August and gave the VA Secretary greater authority to fire underperforming executives, but the agency, according to the Senators, is ignoring it.

"The clearest example of your failure to change the culture at the VA is the continued employment of Sharon Helman," wrote McCain and Flake. "Ms. Helman and other senior leaders collected huge bonuses for the timely delivery of health care to veterans, many of whom died while awaiting care after being placed on secret waiting lists. This is unacceptable."

In a response to the inquiry, VA spokesperson, Meagan Lutz said that the agency "has proposed the removal of Phoenix VAMC Director Sharon Helman and two other senior leaders in Phoenix," but according to Lutz, they were waiting for "the results of the Department of Justice investigation."

A staffer on the House Veteran Affairs committee asked the DOJ to elaborate on that explanation in the October 30 email and wrote in part, "Chairman Miller has publically questioned VA’s delay in firing Ms Helman due to the evidence provided by the Committee as well as the VA OIG [Office of the Inspector General]. The Department has responded that the DOJ has asked VA to defer any adverse personnel action against Ms. Helman pending resolution of a DOJ criminal investigation."

"Therefore, we request a briefing on the nature of the DOJ criminal investigation to understand what the potential impact of removing Ms. Helman from Federal service would have on the DOJ investigation."

An official at the DOJ then replied, stating that the Department of Justice did not take a position on Helman’s employment proceedings.

The VA did not respond to request for comment at press time, and the DOJ declined requests to comment further.

"This isn’t complicated," said Rep. Jeff Miller (R., Fla.), Chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, in a statement provided to the Free Beacon.

"If VA has the evidence needed to fire Sharon Helman, which it says it does, it should fire her… The Department of Justice has already said it doesn’t mind if Helman is fired, so VA’s excuses as to why taxpayers must continue to pay her nearly $170,000 a year for doing nothing are simply hot air."

"If VA wants to rebuild its reputation with veterans and the prospective health care employees it says it needs, then it should stop making excuses for the villains of the VA scandal and get serious about purging them from the payroll," Miller added.

According to a statement released by Flake, McCain, and Sen. Richard Burr (R., N.C.), McDonald has failed to respond to numerous letters requesting "answers on Ms. Helman’s employment status."

McDonald defended the VA’s actions at the Thursday meeting, and according to the Washington Post told reporters, "The law didn’t grant any kind of new power that would suddenly give me the ability to walk into a room and fire people."

Sources on the House committee disputed that, telling the Free Beacon, "The law does give the VA Secretary the authority to walk into a room and fire someone, provided VA has the evidence."

The law, they said, is very clear and states that "(a) IN GENERAL.– (1) The Secretary may remove an individual employed in a senior executive position at the Department of Veterans Affairs from the senior executive position if the Secretary determines the performance or misconduct of the individual warrants such removal."

McDonald met with President Obama on Thursday to outline the new Veterans Choice Program and "laid out a 90-day plan meant to improve service, rebuild veterans’ trust and set the course for long-term reform."

It is unclear if they discussed the employment status of executives such as Helman, but to date, the VA has only announced plans to fire four senior officials.