No major scandals: WaPo demolishes VA Secretary’s claim to have fired 60 employees

“Recommending people to receive a letter about their wrongdoing is not the same thing as being fired,” read a recent piece in The Washington Post. These are words you would think would never needed to be written, but the Obama administration has opened up new frontiers for the fact checking industry.

In an appearance on Meet the Press on Sunday, VA Secretary Robert McDonald was quizzed about his efforts to reform that scandal-plagued agency. “Nine hundred people have been fired since I became secretary,” McDonald asserted. “We’ve got 60 people that we fired who have manipulated wait times.”

It sounds like a strong response to the outrageous discovery in the spring of last year that American veterans had suffered or even died as a result of being unable to receive care at VA facilities. Worse, administrators with that agency in a variety of locations systematically covered-up of the extent of the wait times veterans faced. It was a scandal that cost VA Sec. Eric Shinseki his job, and cast doubt on the administration’s oft-repeated claim that skillfully managed governmental programs can improve the lives of average Americans.

The Post’s Michelle Ye Hee Lee dug into the facts surrounding McDonald’s claim to have largely cleaned house since the scandal broke. She didn’t seem to like what she found.

“In his ‘Meet the Press’ interview, McDonald also said 100 senior leaders are under investigation by the inspector general and the Department of Justice,” she wrote. “Yet McDonald is incorrect saying 60 employees who manipulated wait times were fired.”

Disciplinary actions for 75 employees have been proposed since June 3, 2014, according to the VA’s most recent weekly briefing to the House and Senate committees on veterans affairs. These actions were related to patient scheduling, record manipulation, appointment delays and/or patient deaths. The proposed actions included removals, admonishment (a written letter of censure), reprimand (a stronger letter of censure), suspension of less than two weeks and probationary termination. Admonishment or reprimand letters can be removed from employees’ personnel files after two or three years. (Definitions for disciplinary actions are here.)

Of the 75 employees, only eight employees have actually been removed, as of Feb. 13, 2015. Twenty-three cases were pending. Five employees resigned before a decision was made on their case. Others were demoted, were on probationary termination, had some other disciplinary action, or had no action taken at all.

McDonald used his new personnel authority to propose removals of five executives — in Phoenix, Georgia, central Alabama, Pittsburgh and the VA central area office in Washington. Two retired before they could be removed, and three were actually fired. But of those three terminations, only one was officially related to the VA scandal — James Talton, director of Central Alabama’s VA.

What’s more, one VA spokesperson told this reporter that the 60 fired administrators figure was somewhat inaccurate. They were not fired, per se, but that has been some “proposed disciplinary action.” And many of the 900 who have been let go over the course of nearly a year were dismissed for a variety of disciplinary reasons, including poor performance or failing to show up for work. To suggest that these individuals were all fired as a result of their roles in the VA scandal is perfectly misleading.

That prompted The Post to give McDonald the worst ranking they possibly could: Four Pinocchios. The Post describes this rating without nuance or caveats. It simply identifies an unvarnished lie.

At least this administration has managed to escape any “major scandals.”

David Strom 7:01 PM on September 24, 2022