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Day of Hope: First VA official fired under new procedures

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald, testifies during a House Committee on Veterans' Affairs hearing on "Scheduling Manipulation and Veteran Deaths in Phoenix: Examination of the OIG's Final Report" on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Months after Congress passed legislation making it easier to fire officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs, the first official has finally been fired under the new process.

VA Secretary Robert McDonald had come under fire from members of Congress over the last few months for not using the process against the many officials who played a role in the VA health care scandal, or those involved in other scandals.

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald, testifies during a House Committee on Veterans' Affairs hearing on "Scheduling Manipulation and Veteran Deaths in Phoenix: Examination of the OIG's Final Report" on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald has finally fired a VA official for misconduct under a new law that was supposed to allow for the speedy removal of officials involved in misconduct. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

But on Wednesday, one official was finally forced out under the new process: James Talton, the former director of the Alabama Veterans Healthcare System.

Talton was put on paid administrative leave earlier this year, for failing to take appropriate disciplinary action against two VA officials. One of those officials took a veteran to a crackhouse, and the other crashed a VA vehicle and lied about the circumstances of the crash.

Talton was also accused of lying to Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.) about whether people involved in the health care scandal had been fired.

In October, the VA finally decided to recommend Talton's removal. But under the law passed by Congress, Talton had the right to appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board. He did appeal the VA's finding, but a decision from an administrative judge released Wednesday said it upheld the VA's decision.

The decision shows the judge upheld the basic findings in the case, which indicate Talton failed to discipline people for inappropriate behavior. It also shows that Talton made an extensive effort to appeal the VA's ruling.

For example, Talton argued that the VA erred in assembling the facts against him, an argument the judge quickly dismissed.

Alton also argued that staffing shortages preventing him from managing his staff, that he wasn't trained properly, and that the VA is trying to remove him for reasons related to performance, not misconduct. But the judge dismissed those arguments as well.

Finally, Talton said Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson ordered his removal, and that he did not have the authority to make that call. But the judge said VA Secretary Robert McDonald delegated his authority to Gibson.

"I… find that the appellants affirmative defenses and all other assertions are without merit," the judge concluded.

The decision was welcomed by House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), who called it a "no-brainer."

"The reason VA has a notorious reputation for not holding employees accountable is because senior department leaders such as Talton have repeatedly refused to do so - even when confronted with overwhelming evidence of malfeasance that harms veterans," Miller said. "This decision was a complete no-brainer and I can't imagine how the Merit Systems Protections Board could have reached any other conclusion than to uphold Talton's firing."

One last thing…
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