Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald on Thursday fired back at lawmakers who have accused him of not moving fast enough to remove managers accused of covering up healthcare delays for veterans.
“These laws are very clear and I’m skeptical whether members of Congress don’t understand the law,” he said during a Christian Science Monitor breakfast.
McDonald, a former Proctor and Gamble CEO named by President Obama to lead the VA last summer, also said he was disturbed by efforts to create a political controversy using veterans.
“Why is it in my interest to go slow on disciplinary action? Explain to me why that’s in my interest,” he said. “And then tell me why you want to play some kind of a political game about veterans.”
House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff MillerJefferson (Jeff) Bingham MillerPortland names pedestrian overpass after Ned Flanders Congress should explore extending certain VA benefits to Afghan allies Don't blame veterans for Afghanistan withdrawal, and don't forget about them MORE (R-Fla.) and Sens. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMeghan McCain to Trump: 'Thanks for the publicity' Grant Woods, longtime friend of McCain and former Arizona AG, dies at 67 Will Trump choose megalomania over country? MORE (R-Ariz.) and Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeFlake donating unused campaign funds to Arizona nonprofit focused on elections: report Biden nominates former Sen. Tom Udall as New Zealand ambassador Biden to nominate Jane Hartley as UK ambassador: report MORE (R-Ariz.) in recent weeks have accused McDonald of moving too slowly to fire senior level executives within the agency. They also have accused him of allowing some to retire with full benefits or seek employment elsewhere.
A new law passed this summer by Congress granted McDonald new powers to dismiss executives and managers, pending an appeals process. It passed with overwhelming bipartisan support after several government investigations found systemic tampering with patient wait times within the Veterans Affairs Department.
But McDonald on Thursday said the law doesn’t give him the power to fire people indiscriminately.
“The law didn’t grant any kind of new power that would suddenly give me the ability to walk into a room and simply fire people. I wouldn’t do that anyway,” McDonald said. “Criminal prosecution has the priority, then the administrative disciplinary action follows.”
He said the department has more than 40 cases of disciplinary action in progress against senior leaders and is tracking more than 2,000 cases throughout the agency where an employee might be disciplined or fired.
The agency’s inspector general, the Justice Department and the FBI also have over 100 investigations taking place within the VA, he said.
“The easiest way to mess up an evidentiary situation is to have multiple people investigating at the same time,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure whatever action we take sticks. That it’s fair, that it sticks and that on appeal we are successful.”
McDonald also pushed back against claims that he has the ability to “claw back “the retirement benefits that employees earned over the whole of their government career, saying he can only do so if the person is found to be guilty of treason or treasonous activity.
He noted that even CEOs in the private sector lack the kind of authority to recoup retirement benefits.