VA has one ethics officer for every 18,674 employees

The Veterans Affairs Department should grow its ethics team, according to a new review by the Office of Government Ethics, which oversees ethics standards across the government.

Just 19 VA lawyers and paralegals work on a specialized team that ensures the department’s nearly 343,000 employees comply with government ethics rules. Spread across the nation, the team members make sure senior officials and certain mid-level employees file financial disclosure forms. They also provide training, advice and counseling to employees on a range of questions, such as whether it’s OK to accept gifts or take on outside work.

“OGE is concerned that this ratio of one ethics official for every 18,674 employees may be too small for VA to have confidence in its ability to ensure that its workforce is capable of consistently complying fully with the complex framework of government ethics rules applicable to federal agencies,” the report said.

VA’s ratio of employees to ethics staff is out of line with other cabinet agencies. It is four times higher than at the Department of Agriculture, the agency that comes the closest, according to OGE.

Courtesy of OGE
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The ethics team cannot keep up with its responsibilities, the review suggested. Taking a sampling of public financial disclosure reports, OGE found 24 percent had been filed after their deadlines. In addition, it said, ethics officials met only sometimes with departing officials to discuss possible conflicts in taking post-government work.

OGE recommends VA expand the team or have other parts of the department assume some responsibilities. For example, VA might tell supervisors to read through employees’ disclosure reports, looking for anything that might raise eyebrows. Members of the ethics team may miss red flags because they do not know an individual’s specific duties, instead relying on generic job descriptions and vendor lists, OGE said.

‘A direct result of the need to do more with less’

Despite its small size, the ethics team does not need to grow, according to VA officials. It is reaching the department’s workers nationwide through online training and counseling by phone, email and video chat, in addition to face- to- face meetings, said Acting General Counsel Tammy Kennedy in a response to the OGE report. Separate offices handle ethical issues in health care and research, she noted.

VA set up the team two years ago to replace a diffuse array of 200 attorneys working part-time on ethics issues. VA reorganized the system to provide quicker, more consistent answers to employees’ questions, Kennedy said.

“The [Ethics Specialty Team] is a direct result of the need to do more with less, and the [Office of General Counsel] believes that it has succeeded, with advice that is more accurate and consistent,” she wrote.

But, she acknowledged, her team is not a priority at a department focused on improving health care and benefits assessments for veterans.

“While ethics is an integral part of Government service,” she wrote, “activities that directly benefit Veterans are VA’s primary mission.”

New VA Secretary Bob McDonald has met with OGE’s director to discuss ways to emphasize ethics in a department that has been troubled by numerous reports of misconduct. On Sunday, the department officially named a senior lawyer, Renee Szybala, the designated agency ethics official and liaison with OGE.


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