A federal board has blocked the firing of the director of the District’s troubled hospital for veterans, setting up a showdown with the Trump administration as it pursues expanded authority to clean house at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Brian Hawkins, who until recently served as the head of the VA Medical Center in Washington, was removed from his post in April and fired two weeks ago for what VA officials said was a failure to “provide effective leadership.”
Investigations by the agency’s inspector general found that Hawkins oversaw a hospital where patients were endangered by “the highest levels of chaos” and that Hawkins sent confidential VA information to his wife’s email account.
However, in a decision issued last week, U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board member Mark A. Robbins — the sole member of the three-person panel, whose remaining seats have not been filled by the president — ordered a stay of 45 days on Hawkins’s firing, asserting that his abrupt dismissal may have violated civil-service protections for federal workers.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which is tasked with protecting federal workers from improper hiring and firing practices, requested the stay after receiving a complaint from Hawkins.
Robbins’s order states that during the stay Hawkins must be “reinstated to the position he held prior to the proposed removal.” The decision does not make clear whether Hawkins should resume his duties at the VA Center or return to the job he has held since April, when he was reassigned to administrative work outside the hospital.
But Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said he had no intention of returning Hawkins to a leadership post at the hospital.
“No judge who has never run a hospital and never cared for our nation’s veterans will force me to put an employee back in a position when he allowed the facility to pose potential safety risks to our veterans,” Shulkin said in a statement. “Protecting our veterans is my most important responsibility.”
The statement said Hawkins had been put back on the payroll in an administrative job at VA headquarters, not at the hospital.
Hawkins could not be reached for comment.
Hawkins’s fate could be a test case for the VA secretary’s new powers under the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, signed in June by President Trump. Among other things, the law is supposed to make it easier to fire ineffective VA employees.
The president promised during his campaign to reform the agency, which has struggled for years to provide basic care to many veterans.
In April, VA Inspector General Michael J. Missal issued preliminary findings in his investigation of problems at the veterans hospital on North Capitol Street. He said he took the rare step of talking about the investigation before it was complete because patients were at risk.
Missal said the hospital was extremely disorganized and that its workers had failed to inventory roughly $150 million in medical supplies.
The lapses directly affected patients’ care: In one instance, the hospital ran out of dialysis bloodlines and had to borrow them from another facility. In another case, a nurse said she was unable to find tubes to insert into a patient’s nose to provide oxygen during an emergency.
“We have not seen anything quite like this at a VA facility,” Missal said in April. “They have no inventory system. They don’t know what they have or what they are going to need.”
A more recent report by the inspector general said Hawkins shared “sensitive” information about VA employees and administrative decisions with his wife — who is not a VA employee — via email.
Julie Tate contributed to this report.