Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

When the VA Medical Center in Bedford, Mass., spent hundreds of thousands of dollars hiring landscapers and ordering rock salt, mulch and crushed stone, one whistleblower in the department found it suspicious that the supplies never showed up.

Turns out they were never delivered, and an employee had steered the contract to her brother’s landscaping business, according to a recent investigation by the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal agency that investigates whistleblower claims.

The employee was allowed to keep her federal job. She was demoted only one pay grade, despite President Trump’s VA Accountability Act, which allows for quick removal of employees who violate standards or break the law in the troubled agency. Her father, who also worked at the Bedford VA, resigned after the investigation.

Trump has said that since the legislation’s passage, his administration has removed “more than 1,500 VA employees who failed to give our veterans the care they deserve — and we are hiring talented people who love our vets as much as we do.”

The exact number of VA staffers who have been fired is not clear. The White House and the department have different numbers. An email from a department spokesman said, “VA has fired 1,737 people” since Trump signed the law in June. A White House fact sheet puts the number at 1,470.

One of those people was apparently not Bedford VA employee Heather Garneau-Harvey, who steered the money for groundskeeping materials to her brother, the OSC report said.

“By allowing an employee who engaged in this conduct to remain with the agency, VA demonstrates a shocking degree of indifference to government ethical standards, procurement regulations, and public integrity,” Special Counsel Henry J. Kerner wrote to the president in a recent letter.

The landscaping scheme was brought to the OSC’s attention by a whistleblower who led investigators to nearly $1 million in “improperly spent or documented purchases” at the Bedford VA. The whistleblower disclosed suspicious, frequent and significant purchase orders for landscaping materials, such as rock salt, mulch and crushed stone, and said the majority of these orders were never delivered to the facility despite payment.

Ultimately, VA largely substantiated the whistle-blower’s allegations. VA found that Dennis J. Garneau and his daughter, Heather Garneau-Harvey, as Bedford VA employees, steered $200,000 snow removal and groundskeeping contracts to a business owned by a family member, their son and brother, respectively.

VA also found that Dennis Garneau directed purchases of more than $750,000 in “landscaping materials without appropriate verification of delivery, among other purchasing irregularities.”

Garneau-Harvey denied knowledge of her family’s ownership of the company to criminal investigators. Later, emails proved her knowledge, the OSC said. Her father, Dennis Garneau, has resigned.

Attempts to contact the family were unsuccessful.

In response to a request for comment, Richard Grundy, a lawyer representing Dennis Garneau Jr., the son of Garneau and owner of Earth Creations, told the Lowell, Mass., Sun: “I would ask that you use caution regarding any assertions or allegations with respect to my clients, in light of what the report you cite as the authority for your investigation actually is willing to state.”

Helping the financial interest of a family member is a violation of VA and government ethics regulations, the OSC said.

Curt Cashour, press secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs, agreed that the disciplinary action highlighted in this report “is wholly inappropriate and isn’t anywhere close in proportion to the offense that necessitated it. Veterans deserve to know VA will hold employees accountable when the facts demonstrate they have failed to uphold the high standards taxpayers expect from us,” he said in an emailed statement.

“That didn’t happen here, and as a result we will be reinforcing with each and every VA facility leader the importance of ensuring disciplinary actions correspond appropriately with the misbehavior that warranted them,” Cashour said. “We are looking into the actions of the leaders who made the decision not to remove the employee in question and will take whatever action is appropriate after that review, which will be complete by close of business Feb. 9.”

Cashour also said VA is reviewing the available options to recover the money from the vendors.

Firing federal employees has long been a fraught issue inside VA and the entire federal government. In 2014, President Barack Obama signed a bipartisan overhaul bill to hasten the firing of senior VA executives. After a legal battle, it is no longer enforced.

Under the Trump administration, Congress passed the legislation in June making it easier to fire VA employees and shortening the time they can hold hearings or fight the charges.

The law’s impact on improving accountability at the department remains unclear: VA employees were fired at about the same rate as during Obama’s last budget year, for instance, according to VA and an Associated Press report fact-checking the issue. 

“As you can see, since President Trump signed the bill into law, VA has fired 1,737 people,” Cashour said in an email.

Under Obama, VA fired 2,001 people in 2016. That includes 983 removals and 1,018 removals of people during a one-year probationary period. In 2017, VA fired 2,537 people including 1,443 removals and 1,094 probationary removals.

One egregious example of the difficulty in terminating VA employees came in March, when VA Secretary David Shulkin said he was horrified that he could not fire an employee of the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Houston who was found watching pornography while with a patient.

VA immediately removed the employee from patient care and placed the person on administrative duties. Because of the law at the time, the deciding official could not make a final determination for 30 days from the date the proposal for removal was made.

The new law shortens that time to seven days in most cases. Federal unions argue that the 30-day period is important because employees deserve the time to respond to allegations.