President Obama’s newest Cabinet member drew criticism this week for his approach to firing employees after he insisted that the Department of Veterans Affairs will deal respectfully and methodically with workers suspected of wrongdoing in the agency’s record-keeping scandal.
VA Secretary Robert McDonald said Thursday that the agency is working as fast as it can to remove bad workers under a new law that gives the VA greater authority to fire senior executives, but he added that the employees are entitled to due process.
He declined to say how many employees the VA has disciplined or identify any of the individuals. Federal law restricts what an agency can say about such matters.
“You’ve got to treat that person with respect,” McDonald told reporters during a visit to a Memphis VA hospital. He added: “We can’t talk to you about names, we can’t talk to you about individuals, even though that’s what you’d like. We can’t do that because that would be disrespectful.”
The conservative-leaning advocacy group Concerned Veterans of America criticized McDonald for his remarks, saying in a statement Friday that the secretary has “already gone native with the VA bureaucracy.”
“He’s urging respect for failing employees, but what about respect for veterans?” said Pete Hegseth, the group’s chief executive. “Why urge respect for unaccountable bureaucrats who tried to cover up this scandal and who have been receiving lavish bonuses for years?”
The Senate unanimously confirmed McDonald as VA secretary last month. During his confirmation hearing, he promised to transform the agency and correct its systematic failures. “I desperately want this job, because I think I can make a difference,” he said.
Last month, the VA initiated disciplinary actions against six of its medical employees, including the directors of the Rocky Mountain network and the Cheyenne, Wyo., VA clinic, for manipulating scheduling data to hide treatment delays.
Under a law Obama signed this month, the VA can quickly fire or demote senior executives for wrongdoing and performance problems. The employees have one week to appeal the decisions, and the Merit Systems Protection Board must issue a ruling within three weeks — much faster than its normal processing rate — or else the VA decision stands.
Critics of the new policy say it rolls back longstanding civil-service protections and discourages top talent from working at the department.
McDonald has spent much of his first weeks in office touring VA medical centers throughout the country and talking with veterans at the clinics. He has said that he plans to travel extensively over the next few months to hear from VA employees and patients.
Here’s a video from the agency touting the secretary’s listening tour: