VA Sec To Congress: Please Let Us Basically Terminate Senior Execs At Will

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Jonah Bennett Contributor
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In an abrupt switch, Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Robert McDonald asked the Senate Tuesday to allow the agency to fire senior executives nearly at will.

While the department has previously maintained at-will employment arrangements would discourage talent from serving at the agency, top VA officials now have reversed the argument completely, Stars and Stripes reports.

McDonald told Congress removing the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) appeal rights from executives would allow for higher pay and an easier hiring process. After two years of struggling to implement accountability at the department, McDonald has finally decided he needs to reform the firing process to match up with the private sector as closely as possible.

Appeal rights moving forward, McDonald said, would go through him.

By speeding up the hiring process, McDonald hopes to fill the gaps. According to David Shulkin, VA undersecretary for health, a total of 34 medical centers do not have permanent directors.

The department’s about-face has come after VA Secretary Sloan Gibson’s efforts to get rid of executive Linda Weiss were thwarted by the MSPB. Weiss formerly served as director of the Albany-Stratton medical center and completely failed to hold her staff accountable. While the administrative judge at MSPB essentially agreed with the department’s case against Weiss, the judge ruled in favor of Weiss’ appeal, saying that the punishment proposed was simply too harsh.

Gibson said he does not recognize the decision and called it “unenforceable,” though he stuck by two previous MSPB rulings which mandated the reinstatement of executives Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves.

Rubens and Graves were involved in a scheme to push subordinates out of their positions so that Rubens and Graves could fill those easy jobs while maintaining a high-level salary and bringing in major relocation benefits. The scheme was so egregious the inspector general recommended criminal charges, though Gibson balked at the idea, saying that at worst the two executives showed poor judgment, but there was no actual wrongdoing.

Now that the VA is serious about removing executives, Democrats appear to be coming around as well, with legislation to hit back against the MSPB. Several on the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs have said they’re preparing to put forward similar legislation, though it will likely differ from what the Republicans have in mind. GOP Sen. [crscore]Johnny Isakson[/crscore] said he hopes to have legislation out by the end of March for the department.

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