Weeks after Congress passed legislation to allow the Veterans Affairs secretary to quickly fire corrupt or inefficient employees, VA Secretary Robert McDonald said he cannot fire anyone until various investigations from inside and outside the VA are completed.
McDonald also said he could not offer any timetable for when VA workers might be fired, and said the law does not specifically require anyone to be fired.
McDonald's comments are the latest sign he has not used the new law passed by Congress as aggressively as many wanted, at least so far. That posture has already angered some veterans groups, who say federal employees need to be fired for their role in delaying veterans' access to healthcare for the last several years, and then working to cover up their tracks after Congress started investigating.
Before leaving for the August break, the House and Senate agreed on legislation allowing the VA secretary to fire or demote senior officials. That bill gave those officials a three-week appeals process.
In his comments today, McDonald indicated he has yet to use that process at all, and said the various ongoing investigations into the conduct of VA employees are in the way.
"There are over ongoing 100 investigations of VA facility right now by the VA Office of Inspector General, by the FBI, by the Department of Justice, by the Office of Special Counsel, and others," he said. "In each case, we'll await the results and we will take the appropriate disciplinary action when all the facts and evidence are known."
"We have 100 investigations ongoing, and as those investigations are going on, we are not allowed to take definitive action," he added.
McDonald also gave several other indications that there should be no expectations of mass firings of VA officials. When asked by a reporter when the public can expect some to be fired, he said "you've already seen it," and referred to a late July announcement about possible disciplinary actions.
But that announcement didn't name any of the officials, and said only that some might be fired as a result.
Importantly, that announcement was made about a week before Obama signed the new legislation into effect, which means those possible disciplinary actions do not appear to be taking place under the new law. McDonald did not announce any additional actions today that could be taking place under the expedited process.
In mid-August, McDonald said it's "not relevant" how many VA workers are fired, despite the nationwide outcry about the long wait times for veterans care and efforts to cover up the scandal.
Two members of Congress have even accused some VA officials of lying directly to Congress — in late August, two of these officials in Alabama were placed on paid administrative leave.
McDonald also spoke broadly about the need to defend the rights of officials who may be subject to being fired or demoted.
"Personnel actions require a value of respect for the individual," he said. "And there's a process that needs to be followed. And whether it's in private industry or whether it's in the public government sector, there's a due process that needs to be followed."
While McDonald said firing people immediately is off the table, he said he is increasingly worried about retaining good people, and said raises are probably necessary in some cases.
For example, he said the salaries of some medical workers have been frozen, and said they should not be because they work on the front line with veterans. "If those people are really front line, we need to seek exceptions to those," he said.
McDonald spoke at length about trying to change the culture at the VA, which he said has involved various meetings and efforts to reach employees through town halls, and holding breakfast meetings with veterans groups. He said one key change he is trying to make it making sure VA workers understand how their work helps veterans.
"We'd like every employee in the Veterans Affairs department to be able to know what they do every single day, and how it ties back to our mission, and how it's consistent with our values," he said.