Watchdog, whistleblower on wishlist for VA IG nominee

A shield for whistleblowers, an independent watchdog, a sharp investigator and a confident leader.

The prerequisites for what congressional members and veterans advocates want to see in an inspector general for the beleaguered Department of Veterans Affairs is a daunting one, as the President’s pick to head the office prepares for a Senate nomination hearing Nov. 17.

Michael Missal, President Barack Obama’s nominee, is scheduled to appear before the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs on Tuesday. He would be the first permanent leader for the department since January 2014. VA’s office of inspector general is currently led by acting IG Linda Halliday. She took over in July after Richard Griffin retired.

“A strong and independent inspector general is one important tool to combat the rampant culture of corruption that has plagued VA,” said a committee official, who requested anonymity. “Our goal for this hearing is simply to assess Mr. Missal’s qualifications to take on the enormous task of heading the inspector general’s office at the second largest agency in the federal government. We look forward to hearing Mr. Missal’s plans and priorities for conducting the oversight needed to hold VA leadership and employees accountable for delivering our veterans the care and customer service they deserve.”

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A spokeswoman for the office of inspector general said the office had no comment on Missal’s nomination, nor on its priorities and goals for the position.

Solutions to problems, responsive to concerns

The VA has for years been plagued by problems ranging from backlogged disability claims to abuse of power.

On Veterans Day, Obama renewed a call to Congress to address the backlog, as well as veteran education, homelessness and health care, saying he was “still not satisfied” at the level of service and wait times veterans face when seeking treatment.

“Given the accusations surrounding health care, I am surprised the administration did not identify a former U.S. Attorney. … The Secret Service is a bit tainted these days; otherwise, I would have also expected a former Secret Service investigator. The nominee’s background is corporate,” said Jim Taylor, a former deputy inspector general at the Homeland Security Department.

Missal currently works as a partner at K&L Gates LLP, an international law firm based in Washingon. Though Missal has worked at the firm since 1991, he does have a decade of government service under his belt. He was a staff assistant for President Jimmy Carter from 1978-80. He then worked as a law clerk for Chief Judge H. Carl Moultrie, District of Columbia Superior Court, from 1982-83. He also worked as senior counsel for the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Division of Enforcement from 1983-87.

Obama announced Missal as his pick for VA IG in early October.

“Congress has always felt that IGs should be responsive to their concerns,” Taylor said. “Given the criticisms raised about the former acting IG, they will want assurance that this IG will fully cooperate with the oversight committees and be transparent (to them).”

A spokesman for Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.), a ranking member of the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said the congresswoman also hoped Missal would be “committed to responding quickly to inquiries from Congress, particularly to those that have to do with whistleblowers. Another important issue is that the new nominee work quickly to ensure that unfilled IG billets are quickly filled with quality personnel.”

The VA has faced criticism for how it handles whistleblowers.

In September, a group known as “VA Truth Tellers” testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee about the need to fill the inspector general position.

One member of the group called the office a “joke,” the Associated Press reported.

“The VA IG has been caught up in the VA issues, in that, as I recall, it was whistleblowers, not the IG raising a lot of the concerns,” Taylor said. “The concern will likely be how the nominee intends to turn the office into the independent investigative body that Congress feels is lacking at VA.”

Help from Congress and the administration

Some lawmakers recently have proposed legislation to address VA discipline.

Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, has sponsored a bill that would let Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald discipline or fire employees more quickly. The legislation stems from an early November hearing before Miller’s committee at which Danny Pummill, principal deputy under secretary for benefits at the VA’s Veterans Benefits Administration, told committee members that the VA has an “accountability problem,” after an alleged relocation scandal was revealed in a September IG report that resulted in the government paying roughly $400,000 for two senior executives to relocate within the department.

“The most important thing Mr. Missal can do if confirmed is reassert the IG’s status as the independent watchdog of the VA,” said John Cooper, spokesman for Concerned Veterans for America. “For too long, the inspector general’s office has failed to fulfill its primary mission —investigating incompetence and unethical behavior in a transparent manner at the VA to ensure our veterans are cared for only by those fully devoted to treating them with the dignity and respect they deserve.”

But the position isn’t one that can do the work alone.

“He needs to hire the right people to delve into the VA and he has to have enough support from the administration so that he can expose this and have reassurances that they will act,” said Ron Abrams, joint executive director at the National Veterans Legal Services Program. “That’s what we’re hoping for. He has to be competent enough to hire people with the right background. He has to hire people who understand the purpose of this. It’s a sacred trust. The VA is supposed to take care of those who risked their lives for us.”

Abrams, a former legal consultant to the VA’s Compensation and Pension Service (C&P), said an ideal inspector general would be someone “who knows how to turn over rocks and look for bad things, can hire people to do that, and enough backing to change what is a corrupt bureaucracy. We want somebody honest, and it looks like this guy’s honest. We want someone who will hire people with enough knowledge that they won’t be hoodwinked or deceived by bureaucrats in the VA.”

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