Vet Groups Pressure Trump To Keep VA Sec, But He Disagrees With Almost All Of Trump’s Reforms

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Jonah Bennett Contributor
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Twenty veterans groups released a letter to President-elect Donald Trump advocating he keep current Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald, even though the VA has run roughshod over Trump’s proposed reforms.

The letter, signed by organizations like Got Your 6, AMVETS, the Marine Corps Reserve Association and the Service Women’s Action Network, argues that because reform of the federal government’s second-largest department is such a monumental task, continuity from the Obama administration to the Trump administration is important.

And according to the advocacy groups, that’s why Trump needs to keep McDonald as head of the VA—so he can continue to build on reforms he has already initiated.

“Transforming an agency as large and diverse as VA will take a continuous commitment from leadership over the course of many years,” the letter reads. “As you make your selection for VA Secretary, then, we advocate for an approach that recognizes and builds upon current progress. Given the challenges we face, we cannot afford to start over.”

Six major veteran organizations separately urged Trump Tuesday to keep McDonald as head of the VA, and also requested an in-person meeting with Trump to talk about support for veterans.

The two top frontrunners for secretary of the VA are Pete Hegseth, former head of Concerned Veterans of America, and former GOP Sen. Scott Brown. Both are veterans of the Army National Guard.

Trump hasn’t yet made his decision on who the next secretary will be. He has named new heads for other crucial departments like the Department of State, Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security.

McDonald confirmed Tuesday he hasn’t yet spoken to Trump.

So far, Trump hasn’t asked any top-level appointees from the Obama administration to remain. If he asks McDonald to stay, it might come off as odd, because McDonald has run afoul of numerous points of Trump’s 10-point VA reform plan.

In fact, the first point of the plan implicitly knocks existing VA leadership by saying that the “Obama administration has continually placed D.C. bureaucrats’ needs above those of veterans.”

The third point of Trump’s VA plan is for Congress to pass legislation granting the secretary of the VA authority to fire any employee jeopardizing veterans’ well-being. McDonald has repeatedly opposed the VA Accountability Act, which uses similar language.

Additionally, McDonald elsewhere has maintained that he has all the tools he needs to hold employees accountable for poor performance and misconduct.

And yet, just nine people have been fired related to wait-time issues, even though a VA inspector general report noted that wait time manipulation was rampant at 40 medical facilities across the country.

Instead of separating them from the department, the VA has promoted employees who pressured subordinates to manipulate wait times, according to the inspector general.

A VA employee is still on the payroll at the facility in San Juan, despite participating in an armed robbery.

An inspector general report from September 2015 sent criminal referrals to the DOJ after two executives, Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves, wrongfully wiggled their way into new positions while simultaneously receiving more than $400,000 in relocation benefits. Still, after all the controversy, the VA refused fire them or try to recoup the money.

Trump pledged to cut off bonuses to VA employees wasting money, but the VA under McDonald has paid out $142 million in bonuses — regardless of serious scandals.

Trump wants to let veterans choose whether they receive care from the VA or from the private sector. GOP Sen. John McCain’s bill, Care Veterans Deserve Act, has merited McDonald’s opposition.

As part of his fifth point, Trump pledged to protect whistleblowers, but the VA has tried its best to run employees who raise concerns about wrongdoing out of the agency. Whistleblower retaliation is such an endemic problem at the department that the Office of Special Counsel — the agency tasked with protecting whistleblowers — stepped in to call out a consistent pattern of harsh action against employees pointing out waste and mismanagement.

“Our concern is really about the pattern that we’re seeing about – where whistleblowers who disclose wrongdoing are facing trumped-up punishment, but the employees who put veterans’ health at risk are going unpunished,” OSC Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner told NPR.

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