VA used new accountability legislation to fire DC medical center director, for the second time

The Veterans Affairs Department has fired the former director of the Washington, D.C. Medical Center, Brian Hawkins.

This is the second time the department has fired Hawkins, after the Merit Systems Protection granted him a stay on his initial removal from the department. VA reinstated Hawkins to an administrative position within the department’s headquarters.

Yet VA Secretary David Shulkin announced earlier this summer that he would use legislative authority under the newly passed VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act to open a new investigation into Hawkins’ actions.

“We at VA will use the authorities available to ensure our veterans get the highest quality service and care possible,”  Shulkin said in a Sept. 20 statement. “This is the right decision for veterans in D.C., and employees at the medical center, and underscores our commitment to hold employees accountable if they fail to do their jobs or live up to VA’s values.”

A report from the department’s Office of Inspector General sparked the secretary’s latest action, which claimed Hawkins mishandled agency information and violated VA policy by sending details to both his and his wife’s personal email accounts.

The department first fired Hawkins July 28 for his failure to provide “effective leadership” at the D.C. medical center, amid another inspector general report that described the hospital’s chronic supply shortages and unsanitary conditions.

Hawkins’ removal is perhaps the first high-profile case where the VA has used the newly passed accountability legislation to its advantage.

The VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, which Congress passed and the president signed with much fanfare in June.

The law eliminated the MSPB as an avenue for senior executives to appeal disciplinary actions. Instead, SES can appeal directly to a board of their colleagues, which the secretary appoints, or to the courts.

VA has long been frustrated by MSPB, which overturned punishments for three senior executives under previous accountability legislation.

The VA Accountability Act has gotten praise from Shulkin himself and other members of the department’s leadership team.

Peter Shelby, VA’s assistant secretary for human resources and administration, said Secretary Shulkin often hears positive feedback about the accountability changes when travels to VA facilities across the country to speak at town halls.

“He says the only thing he gets a standing ovation for is about accountability,” Shelby said Sept. 20 when asked about employees’ reception to the new law. “People want that. You have 95 percent of your workforce, they come in, they work their butts off everyday, they’re proud to be there. They’re there to serve veterans. When you don’t deal with that small percentage who isn’t there for that or they’re not carrying their work, it has a dramatic effect on morale across the organization.”

Federal employee groups and unions, however, have criticized the new accountability law and say the changes only address superficial and not entrenched cultural challenges at VA.