- The Washington Times - Monday, May 4, 2015

A top House Republican is accusing the Department of Veterans Affairs of a “rampant lack of accountability” and secrecy as the embattled agency faces more scrutiny by lawmakers over shoddy services for veterans and mistreatment of employees.

House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller told VA Secretary Robert McDonald in a letter that “it was your own misstatements to the media” about supposedly firing dozens of agency employees that prompted the panel to release data showing that Mr. McDonald hadn’t fired anyone over last year’s scandal involving bogus waiting lists for veterans at the VA hospital in Phoenix.

“As you know, the number of people VA has actually fired for manipulating wait times is zero,” wrote Mr. Miller, Florida Republican. A copy of the letter was obtained Monday by The Washington Times.

The wait-list scandal led to the ouster of VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki last year.

Mr. McDonald said in an interview on “Meet the Press” in February that the VA had fired 60 people involved in manipulating wait times to make it appear that veterans were receiving care faster than they actually were.

After that interview, VA officials revised those numbers, saying only 14 employees had been fired. Internal VA documents showed last week that the actual number of people removed from their jobs was three: one firing for accepting gifts improperly, one retirement and one termination pending.

That prompted complaints from the VA secretary about leaks, but a House Republican source said the committee “rightly pointed out to the press” that Mr. McDonald’s assertions about firings over the Phoenix scandal were “blatantly false.”

Mr. McDonald complained last week to Mr. Miller in a letter that House investigators were leaking confidential VA information to the press, including The Times.

In a letter dated April 29, Mr. McDonald said the VA “received inquiries from [The] Washington Times, New York Times, USA Today and others” about agency disciplinary action against an employee. The secretary said given the leaks, it was “reasonable” for the VA to redact certain personal identity information about employees in more than 9,000 pages of documents turned over to the committee in recent weeks.

The House committee issued subpoenas last week for personnel and complaint files at the VA’s Philadelphia office, part of an expanding probe into mishandling of veterans’ disability and pensions claims. It was only the third time in the committee’s history that lawmakers issued subpoenas, an indication of growing impatience with the agency and the leader tapped by President Obama to clean up the sprawling bureaucracy.

Mr. Miller said his panel has encountered repeated “stonewalling” from the VA as the committee probes accusations of mismanagement and whistleblower retaliation.

“The department’s continuing and pathological aversion to provide prompt, complete, and accurate responses to our request can only be judged as an attempt to cover up bad information,” he told Mr. McDonald.

Mr. McDonald told the lawmaker that the agency has acted in good faith and that the subpoenas are “a needless and unhelpful step that unnecessarily erodes the confidence of veterans and the American people in our ability to work together in the best interest of veterans.”

Since taking over the VA last summer, Mr. McDonald has been confronted with problems involving lost and mishandled benefits claims, particularly in the agency’s large Philadelphia office, flawed health care services for veterans and persistent reports of reprisals against VA whistleblowers.

In response, Mr. Miller and other House lawmakers have introduced a VA “retaliation prevention act” that would provide penalties for supervisors who take revenge against whistleblowers. Anyone who retaliates against a VA employee for exposing wrongdoing would be suspended for at least 14 days for the first offense and fired for the second.

The legislation also would give preference to transfer requests from whistleblowers.

Brandon Coleman, a whistleblower at the Phoenix VA who is suspended with pay, said he hopes the legislation “will finally start to hold supervisors and administrators accountable.”

“I’m hopeful administrators or supervisors who are shown to retaliate will start getting fired,” Mr. Coleman told The Washington Times. “I think once this finally happens and the media starts covering it, this will help tremendously.”

Since being placed on leave, Mr. Coleman said he has learned that employees at the Phoenix VA have been prying into his medical records, “even though I have not received any primary or specialty care other than getting eye glasses” several months ago.

Christian DeJohn, a whistleblower in the VA’s Philadelphia office, said the measure is “a good start” but should be aimed at the agency’s management.

“It should clearly emphasize that the problems are with the managers, not the rank-and-file, long-suffering VA employee,” he said.

The VA said in a statement that the proposal is “unworkable” and duplicates other remedies created specifically to address claims of workplace retaliation.

Veterans groups are coming out in support of the measure.

“In order for the VA to be reformed — thereby creating a culture of excellence and accountability — employees who are guilty of misconduct must be removed from their jobs so they stop perpetuating the toxic culture at the VA,” said Concerned Veterans for America CEO Pete Hegseth.

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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