“You can’t fire me – I’m retiring with full taxpayer-funded benefits!” appears to be the battle cry among the very few high officials held accountable for failure or corruption during the Obama years. First we had IRS scandal kingpin Lois Lerner riding off into the sunset, her saddlebags stuffed full of lavish pension and benefit money (although, as she hastened to point out during a laughable effort to cadge some public sympathy with a softball interview, not enough to keep her in the style to which she has become accustomed.)
Now the Wall Street Journal reports that VA officials caught up in the secret death-list scandal are pulling the rip cords on their golden parachutes, and the Administration is letting them get away with it. Try to contain your shock.
President Obama and Congress agreed this summer on a bill that made it easier for the VA to fire incompetent officials in return for $16 billion in additional spending to address long patient waiting lines caused by the agency???s incompetence. That looked like another case of government rewarding government failure, and now we learn that two officials targeted for dismissal as part of the VA investigation are retiring instead.
The law gave new secretary Robert McDonald the ability to fire immediately, but the VA says it gave the targeted employees a five-day period to respond so the dismissals would hold up in court. Two of the targets took the opening to retire, including Susan Taylor, the VA???s deputy chief procurement officer in Washington who was the subject of an inspector general report alleging years of misconduct for personal gain. Ms. Taylor declined to comment to a Journal query.
Well, at least Taylor was kinda-sorta threatened with termination before she took the retirement option. The Obama years have seen a few mock “firings” in which the official supposedly being held to account by an allegedly irate President had already chosen to retire, or had a temporary appointment that was due to expire anyway.
The New York Times reports that these early retirements are not sitting well with VA critics, and offers more details about what Taylor and the other surprise “retiree,” John Goldman, were up to:
???The only way the department can regain the trust of veterans and taxpayers is if V.A. employees who preside over malfeasance and mismanagement are held accountable,??? Representative Jeff Miller, chairman of the committee, said in a statement. ???Quite simply, any V.A. administrator who purposely manipulated appointment data, covered up problems, retaliated against whistle-blowers or who was involved in malfeasance that harmed veterans must be fired, rather than allowed to slip out the back door with a pension.???
On Tuesday, Susan Taylor, the deputy chief of procurement for the Veterans Health Administration, announced her retirement by email, three weeks after the Veterans Affairs agency released a scathing report saying she had steered business toward her lover and to a favored contractor, then tried to ???assassinate??? the character of a colleague who attempted to stop the practice.
The other executive who retired before being fired, John Goldman, was accused of allowing employees at a V.A. hospital in Georgia to delete hundreds of appointments from records to hide wait times at the hospital. He submitted his resignation in September.
Here’s the kicker: as outrageous as these retirements sound, they actually are an improvement over the previous state of affairs, in which firing even the worst miscreant was virtually impossible:
The V.A. said the retirements were proof that the new law was working. Before it was passed, all agency executives targeted for termination were entitled to hearings and appeals that could stretch for years; now, firing an executive takes just 28 days. ???We are dealing with this issue as expeditiously and as aggressively as possible,??? Robert A. McDonald, the current secretary of veterans affairs, said in an interview.
Mr. McDonald said the agency had no legal authority to stop employees like Ms. Taylor and Mr. Goldman from retiring or to take away their pensions. But, he said, allowing people to retire in lieu of termination is not a symptom of bureaucratic malaise.
???It???s also very common in the private sector,??? Mr. McDonald said. ???When I was head of Procter & Gamble, it happened all the time, and it???s not a bad thing ??? it saves us time and rules out the possibility that these people could win an appeal and stick around.???
Plus, he said, their records reflect that they were targeted for termination. ???They can???t just go get a job at another agency,??? Mr. McDonald said. ???There will be nowhere to hide.???
Oh, fer cryin’ out loud… do I really have to explain the differences between Procter & Gamble and the Department of Veterans Affairs? And this “nowhere to hide” tough guy rhetoric is hilarious. They retired with benefits. They don’t have to go get jobs at other agencies. If they really do feel the need to secure other employment, someone in what we indulgently refer to as “the private sector” will snap them up, just to gain access to their Rolodexes.
Veteran’s groups are said to be “out for blood,” not just because they want the people responsible for scandals at the VA to be punished, but because they worry “this kind of bureaucratic maneuvering gives people the sense they got away with it,” as Alex Nicholson of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America is quoted at the Times. One of Taylor’s offenses was improperly steering a contract to a company that proceeded to team up with her and destroy the whistleblower who tried to cancel the deal. There should be severe consequences for that sort of thing, or it will keep happening.
But in this era of government of, by, and for the government, powerful officials and their special friends do not often need to worry about severe consequences. The system has been rigged to make them virtually untouchable; even when rules are instituted that make it possible to actually fire them – an improvement touted as a great achievement in reform! – the results are not remotely comparable to what most of us would anticipate for comparable acts of malfeasance. Is there anything going on in the private sector that remotely compares to the nightmare at the VA? If there was, wouldn’t you expect the offending company to go down under a tidal wave of federal law-enforcement agents?
Now, who’s up for seeing what the VA can do with Ebola, when the first infected U.S. troops begin returning from their mission in West Africa?