VA Secretary vows to fire person he just fired in April

Let’s just file this one under, Theater of the Absurd – Washington Edition.

When President Trump came into office and decided to keep David Shulkin on as the head of the VA I had some misgivings about leaving an Obama holdover in such a critical spot. But he pleasantly surprised me by picking up the mission as defined by the new president and moving to clean things up at the VA. Rules were changed to make it easier to fire poor performers and Shulkin quickly got to work cleaning house. One item on the agenda wound up being the matter of Brian Hawkins, an executive at the VA’s D.C. medical center. He had allegedly been discovered sending sensitive information to private email accounts belonging to himself and his wife, along with “irregularities” in the ordering and handling of medical material. After an investigation, Shulkin moved to fire him for, “allegedly failing to exercise effective oversight, follow instructions, follow policy, and for lack of candor.”

So, a job well done, right? Identify the problem and get rid of it. So we’re ready to move on with the next challenge. Well… not so fast there, buddy. Hawkins is back in the employ of the agency (although in an administrative roll not dealing with patients) and it looks like Shulkin is going to have to fire him again. And the culprits here are our old friends on the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). Government Executive has the details.

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin on Wednesday blasted a decision by Merit Systems Protection Board Vice Chairman Mark Robbins to issue a stay in the firing of the former director of the VA medical facility in Washington, D.C.

Brian Hawkins was relieved of his duties at the D.C. medical center in April after a report faulted the center for deficiencies in how it handles medical supplies. He worked in an administrative role at the agency’s headquarters until June 9, when officials proposed that he be fired.

The Office of Special Counsel, which investigates allegations of prohibited personnel practices in the federal workforce, has taken up the case and had requested a 45-day stay for Hawkins while it looks into his removal. Robbins said in his decision that he was granting the stay in part due to “the deference that generally should be afforded to OSC” in these matters.

Hawkins is apparently trying to claim that he’s some sort of whistleblower and the VA was retaliating against him. The basis for that claim is that he was allegedly looking into “inefficiencies in his center’s logistics department” and that he’d forwarded those concerns to the VA Inspector General. But is exposing inefficiencies the sort of groundbreaking truthtelling which gets a senior executive fired? Doesn’t sound like it, really. And even if that’s related to the actions being taken, why is sensitive government information showing up on his wife’s email account?

In any event, he was in a position where he was in charge of facilities dealing directly with veterans in need of medical care. In Shulkin’s opinion, that was an unacceptable situation and he had to be removed. But once again, as we’ve seen so often in the past, the MSPB can swoop in and cancel any firing of delinquent workers, keeping them on the payroll (and frequently receiving back pay) while the matter is investigated.

We may have put some new rules in place which make it easier to clear out the dead wood, but clearly “easier” doesn’t mean easy. And as long as the administration has to keep fighting the MSPB it’s never going to be a clean system which operates in a fashion remotely like the civilian world.