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Employees Can Be Involved in Armed Robberies as Long as It's On Their Own Time, VA Says

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David Shulki (left), VA undersecretary for health, said it was important to set the facts straight. David Shulki (left), VA undersecretary for health, said it was important to set the facts straight. Ross D. Franklin/AP file photo

Perhaps David Shulkin just assumed a Veterans Affairs Department employee would be fired for playing a role in an armed robbery.

VA’s undersecretary for health told the House Veterans' Affairs Committee last week that Elizabeth Rivera, a worker at a facility in Puerto Rico who was involved in an armed robbery last year, was no longer with the department.

“So [she is] on paid leave?” asked Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan.

Shulkin replied that was not his understanding, saying he believed Rivera was “not an employee of the VA.” The undersecretary conceded, however, he may have been incorrect and promised to let the committee know if he was.

On Friday, Shulkin made good on that promise, clarifying Rivera was reinstated to work as a clerk at the Puerto Rico facility “following administrative processes and court approval.” The undersecretary made his clarification in a public statement.

“I have clarified my statement, and will be formally responding to the committee,” Shulkin said, “but it is equally important to me that I provide the facts and set the record straight for our veterans, employees and the general public who entrust us with the care of the nation’s veterans and who expect us to be open and honest with them.”

Rivera was driving a car last year when a passenger got out and attempted to rob a couple at gunpoint. That individual fled on foot when police arrived and Rivera was arrested and charged with armed robbery. She later pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors.

“There was never any indication that the employee posed a risk to veterans or VA property,” Shulkin said (emphasis his).

He added the timing of the incident required VA to reinstate the employee.

“In accordance with federal law, criminal prosecution or conviction for off-duty misconduct does not automatically disqualify an individual from federal employment,” Shulkin said. “As is true in private-sector employment, a federal employee generally cannot be terminated for off-duty misconduct unless there is a clear connection between the misconduct and the individual’s employment.”

While VA may have been following the letter of the law, the incident is likely to stoke the flames for those clamoring for accountability reforms at the department. Asked about those proposals last week, VA Secretary Bob McDonald spoke only of his own suggestion to address just Senior Executive Service employees. 

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Eric Katz joined Government Executive in the summer of 2012 after graduating from The George Washington University, where he studied journalism and political science. He has written for his college newspaper and an online political news website and worked in a public affairs office for the Navy’s Military Sealift Command. Most recently, he worked for Financial Times, where he reported on national politics.

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