Top Republican lawmakers blasted Attorney General Loretta Lynch Wednesday for clearing a legal path for a former Veterans Affairs official at the heart of the waiting time scandal to get her job back.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said the decision by Ms. Lynch not to defend in court a portion of the 2014 VA reform law could result in Sharon Helman, former head of the Phoenix, Arizona VA office, going back to work.
“This decision by the Obama administration puts our veterans at further risk,” said Mr. McCarthy, California Republican. “We cannot entrust veterans’ health care to people unwilling or unable to do their jobs and to an agency like the VA that is unable to hold people accountable. The Department of Justice must defend the law as written and signed by President Obama.”
Ms. Lynch notified Mr. McCarthy in a letter Tuesday that her department would not defend the law’s “appointments clause” in a legal challenge brought by Ms. Helman in her effort to be reinstated.
“I note that the scope of this decision is narrow,” Ms. Lynch wrote. “Although the Department of Justice has decided not to defend (VA reform law) against the Appointments Clause challenge in this case, the department will continue to defend the vast bulk of the statute.”
Ms. Helman is arguing that the section of the law is unconstitutional and denies her an important step in the appeals process.
House Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, Florida Republican, said he is “outraged” by the attorney general’s decision, which he said is “remarkably hypocritical given the fact that President Obama enthusiastically supported this law.”
“The effect of this reckless action is clear: It undermines very modest reforms to our broken civil service system supported in 2014 by the president and an overwhelming majority of Congress,” Mr. Miller said. “Today, the Obama administration sent a message loud and clear to felons and those with felonious tendencies everywhere: you will be coddled and protected at the Department of Veterans Affairs, which even before this decision was routinely tolerating egregious behavior among employees such as armed robbery participation and wait-time manipulation.”
The Phoenix VA was at the heart of the scandal that broke in 2014 with the revelation that dozens of veterans had died while awaiting treatment, and VA officials had created phony waiting lists to deceive the public.
Ms. Helman was one of the few people fired in the scandal. She pleaded guilty this year to not reporting $50,000 in gifts she received from a lobbyist.
But Ms. Helman filed a lawsuit last October seeking her job back.
Mr. McCarthy said the attorney general’s action undermines the will of Congress.
“When Congress passed the Veterans Choice Act, a key provision allowed for incompetent and indifferent executives whose inaction allowed veterans to die to be more easily fired,” he said. “Now, even after the president signed this provision into law, his administration is refusing to defend this measure of accountability in the current court action
A spokesman for Concerned Veterans for America called the administration’s action “inexcusable.”
“The Obama administration’s surrender to special interests and entrenched bureaucrats is an insult to all veterans, and disingenuous in light of the administration’s support for the law in 2014,” said CVA spokesman John Cooper.
When Mr. Obama signed the law in August 2014, he said, “Finally, we’re giving the VA secretary more authority to hold people accountable. We’ve got to give Bob [McDonald] the authority so that he can move quickly to remove senior executives who fail to meet the standards of conduct and competence that the American people demand. If you engage in an unethical practice, if you cover up a serious problem, you should be fired. Period. It shouldn’t be that difficult.”