Sexting and Drunk Driving Lead to Job Security at VA
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The Fiscal Times
April 6, 2014

Congressional Republicans are mad as hell at the Department of Veterans Affairs, and they’re not going to take it anymore.

Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) on Thursday said the House would vote on a bill that would make it easier to fire or demote senior officials at the VA, and not just for issues relating to the backlog of veterans claims.

Lawmakers are fed up with a string of reports that detail workplace misbehavior by VA employees that more often than not would result in swift dismissal from a private employer or even jail time. Instead, the government workers in question have been promoted or rehired, and their supervisors have not faced disciplinary action.

In one instance, a claims worker at a VA facility in Nashville “downloaded and installed unapproved software to his VA-issued laptop for the purpose of sexting,” according to a report published by the VA’s inspector general. He also misused $31,000 in travel funds before eventually being promoted to a position in Washington.

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Jonah Czerwinski, who at the time was the director of the VA’s Center for Innovation, was faulted by the VA’s Office of Inspector General for failing to supervise the unnamed employee’s actions. No disciplinary action was taken against Czerwinski since he left the agency to take a job in the private sector. His LinkedIn profile says he now works for The Advisory Board Company.

A separate account showed that the VA rehired a former employee, Jed Fillingim, who had resigned from his previous post following a drunk-driving incident that resulted in the death of a colleague. An investigation by NBC4 News in Washington discovered Fillingim was rehired at a VA facility in Georgia despite an ongoing federal investigation into his misconduct. Investigators later ruled that he was intoxicated while driving a government vehicle, the news report said.

Fillingim is still employed by the VA.

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The VA, meanwhile, continues to chip away at its backlog of benefits claims, an issue that has plagued the agency in recent years and left veterans waiting months and sometimes years to be compensated or reimbursed for medical care. The number of claims pending for more than 125 days fell to 343,794 at the end of March, compared with 405,938 at the beginning of the year.

Yet the persistent backlog, combined with the troubling job-related incidents, have drawn the ire of lawmakers. It also doesn’t help that hundreds of vets were exposed to Hepatitis B and C at a VA facility in Dayton, Ohio, adjacent to Boehner’s congressional district.

“While this was under investigation, the director of the hospital received a five-figure bonus, and then he was promoted,” Boehner said on Thursday at a press conference on Capitol Hill. “You know, I thought I’d seen the worst of government, but this goes beyond the pale. If you’re presiding over a bureaucracy that’s failing our veterans, you shouldn’t be receiving bonuses. You should be gone.”

The Senior Executives Association, a group that advocates for career federal officials, sees things differently.

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“This legislation [from Boehner] does not achieve the goal of accountability and instead is a quick fix sound-bite that does not address the very real issues of backlogs and access to care,” Carol Bonosaro, president of the group, said in a statement. The group added that there’s already an established method for removing senior officials, and that last year the VA dismissed several executives.

Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, introduced the measure on Feb. 11. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has not requested the authority detailed in Miller’s bill.

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A senior writer for The Fiscal Times based in Washington, D.C., Timothy Homan covers defense and national security matters. He previously worked as an economics and congressional reporter for Bloomberg News and covered international trade for Congressional Quarterly.