VA Starts to Make Good on Its Promise to Fire More Execs

Department officials recommend three more high-level officials for removal.

Plans for more heads to roll at the Veterans Affairs Department proceeded apace on Monday night as news broke that top officials under new Secretary Robert McDonald had proposed removal of three more health system executives on top of an earlier announcement about controversial Veterans Health Administration procurement chief Susan Taylor.

Reported first by the Associated Press but confirmed by the department and lawmakers, McDonald plans to invoke new VA authority and the law passed in August accelerating the executive removal process in dismissing the following employees:

  • James Talton, director of the Central Alabama VA Healthcare System. Talton has been on administrative leave after a probe by the VA's Office of Accountability Review substantiated reports of neglect of duty involving delays in patient appointments and unread X-rays;
  • Terry Gerigk Wolf, director of the Pittsburgh VA Healthcare System. Wolf is accused of "conduct unbecoming a senior executive," in the wake of the 2011 and 2012 outbreaks of Legionnaire’s disease;
  • John Goldman, director of the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center in Dublin, Ga., on Sept. 22 announced his retirement after 42 years of federal service.  But the VA on Sept. 26 issued an announcement saying the department was proposing his removal after his hospital admitted to having kept false records to hide long wait times for veterans—one of the key issues in this summer’s Veterans Affairs scandal.
  • Susan Taylor, whose troubles stemmed from a damning inspector general’s report detailing dealings with the reverse auction firm FedBid that presented a conflict of interest. On Wednesday, Taylor was revealed to have landed a new job as the Energy Department’s director of the Office of Procurement Planning effective Oct. 5. But that offer was rescinded when Energy got wind of the VA inspector general’s charges. Her appointment had been announced to staff by Thomas Johnson Jr., associate deputy assistant Energy secretary for Acquisition and Project Management in Energy’s Office of Environmental Management.

"VA will actively and aggressively pursue disciplinary action against those who violate our values," Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said Monday. "There should be no doubt that when we discover evidence of wrongdoing, we will hold employees accountable."

The planned removals announced by Gibson and McDonald earned mixed reviews from Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, who noted that no one has yet been fired and zeroed in on the fact that Goldman had already announced his retirement.

 “Bragging about the proposed removal of someone who has already announced his retirement can only be described as disingenuous,” Miller said in a statement. “Department leaders must not tolerate this instance of what appears to be blatant deceit. Such semantic sleights of hand are insulting to the families struck by the VA scandal and only do more harm to the department’s badly damaged credibility.”

In Talton’s case, Miller counseled reserving judgment, despite Congress having “acted with near unanimity to give the VA secretary greater authority to actually fire failing executives, not just propose removing them…. What I don’t want to see happen is for Talton to retire, resign or find another government job outside of VA without consequence – a pattern that has been emerging in recent weeks.”

On Gerigk-Wolf’s case, Miller said, “Though this announcement comes years late, it can only be viewed as a positive development. …The only way veterans and families struck by the Pittsburgh VA Healthcare System Legionnaires’ Disease outbreak and other VA scandals can get the closure they deserve is if the VA employees who played a role in these tragedies are held accountable, and it’s up to department leaders to make sure that happens.”

Secretary McDonald wrote to Miller Sept. 26 saying 100 additional investigations are under way, and reiterating that the VA already separates some 3,000 employees a year. He attached a new white paper on how the department pursues decisions on terminations under the 2014 Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act.

Under VA rules, the executives have five days to respond to the proposed dismissal. Senior officials suspected of wrongdoing have a shortened appeals process of 21 days.

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