Department of Veterans Affairs brass frustrated a top House lawmaker for saying that employees can't be punished for "off-duty" crimes, after initially testifying incorrectly that an employee connected to armed robbery had been fired.
"This is more proof that the federal government's dysfunctional civil service system makes it almost impossible for VA to adequately discipline most employees, including those involved in serious crimes," House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., told the Washington Examiner Monday. "Veterans would be much better served if top VA leaders would follow VA Under Secretary for Benefits Danny Pummill's lead and admit that's the case."
Miller was responding to an update from David Shulkin, the VA undersecretary for health, who told lawmakers Friday that a VA employee in Puerto Rico had been fired after being charged in connection with armed robbery before pleading guilty to lesser charges. The employee had been fired, but she was reinstated following an appeal of that decision.
Shulkin corrected his testimony Friday afternoon. "In accordance with federal law, criminal prosecution or conviction for off-duty misconduct does not automatically disqualify an individual from federal employment," he explained in that posting. "As is true in private-sector employment, a federal employee generally cannot be terminated for off-duty misconduct unless there is a clear connection between the misconduct and the individual's employment."
Miller has made the difficulty of firing VA employees a focal point of his response to the wait-time scandal, in which VA employees were found to have manipulated scheduling documents to hide the number of veterans waiting for an appointment; several died without ever seeing a doctor. Legislation making it easier to fire lower-level corrupt or negligent officials has stalled in the Senate in the face of labor union opposition, even as cases such as the one involving the Puerto Rico employee stack up.
Shulkin, who also opposes the accountability bill, told lawmakers they changed the bonus criteria to eliminate any financial incentive for hiding the number of veterans awaiting care. "In general, we mostly — of our 340,000 employees — have very, very good, dedicated employees," he said during Friday's hearing. "We have bad systems in place."
He also emphasized his desire to rid the department of bad apples. "We do not want people that shouldn't be treating veterans treating veterans," Shulkin said.