Justice Department may be easing path for disgraced VA executive to be rehired

The VA scandal has been going on for so long at this point that it’s sometimes difficult to remember where it all began. At the VA’s health care system in Phoenix, veterans were put on bogus, shifting “wait lists” which were used to make it look as if veterans were receiving prompt care within appropriate time periods, when in reality there were people dying while they waited months or even years for an appointment. The person in charge of that horror show, Sharon Helman, was eventually fired for the stunning failure of leadership on display.

I know that last sentence might come as a shock to most of you, since it’s virtually impossible to fire anyone at the VA (even if they wind up being convicted sex offenders) but Helman was shown the door. She appealed her dismissal to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) and, perhaps even more amazingly, they upheld her firing. (For the record, they didn’t uphold it for her dismal performance, but because she had also accepted gifts from lobbyists.) The primary reason the government was actually able to get rid of Helman was the passage of the 2014 Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, which streamlined the disciplinary process in such situations.

Helman and her attorneys haven’t given up yet, though, and are challenging the portions of that law which facilitated her dismissal. And now her path to either getting her job back or – more likely – some huge settlement and back pay, may have been cleared when the Attorney General decided not to defend that portion of the law. (Government Executive)

The Justice Department this week declined to defend a key part of a 2014 law that aimed to make it easier to fire senior executives at the Veterans Affairs Department, opening the door to future challenges from affected employees and delivering another blow to a statute some consider unconstitutional.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the department would not challenge a main legal argument put forth by lawyers for Sharon Helman, the former senior executive who ran VA’s Phoenix health care system when the scandal over falsifying wait lists erupted in 2014, and whose case is now before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

While the department “will continue to defend the vast bulk” of the 2014 Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, Lynch said, the decision is a positive one for Helman, who could ultimately get her VA job back.

First of all, Sharon Helman truly has no shame. Not every government bureaucrat who is accused of wrongdoing is guilty, and not everyone caught making mistakes deserves to be fired, but she was the official at the eye of the hurricane. The situation in Phoenix was a horror show, not just some clerical error resulting in a few delayed cases. The wait times facing the veterans wasn’t just the result of a lack of resources to treat everyone efficiently. If that were the case, a competent administrator with a conscience would have gone public with the desperate need for more staff, resources and funding and demanded action on behalf of the veterans. Instead, that office used a clandestine scheme of cooking the books to make it look as if they were efficiently performing their duties while veterans died.

And yet she wants her job back and her taxpayer funded benefits restored.

How does Loretta Lynch justify not taking a stand on this issue? This problem was no doubt festering for years, but it came to a head on Barack Obama’s watch and it was his responsibility to fix it. But the power of the government workers’ unions and the momentum of the status quo has frustrated attempts at accountability up and down the line. Whether it’s fair or not, Helman is the poster child for the systemic failures inside the VA and has also shone a bright light on the lack of accountability for failure in that department. We finally have a tool in hand to bring some of that long needed accountability and Loretta Lynch should be defending it tooth and claw. This represents yet another failure on the part of the Obama administration, where accountability and transparency are lovely words which are frequently bandied about, but fail to materialize when the chips are down.


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