Merit Board upholds senior exec’s firing in VA scandal

The Merit Systems Protection Board has affirmed the Veterans Affairs Department’s decision to ax James Talton, the former director of its health care system in Alabama.

Talton’s case is the first to come before the board under a new law designed to let the VA fire career senior executives more quickly. The law required an administrative judge with the Merit Systems Protection Board to rule on Talton’s appeal within 21 days. That judge’s decision is final. Unlike SES members at other agencies, Talton cannot ask the MSPB’s politically-appointed board members to review the ruling.

Talton was one of four senior executives targeted for removal following the widespread allegations of patient neglect and mismanagement that shook up the department, culminating in the resignation of former Secretary Eric Shinseki earlier this year. Two of the four executives retired before being fired. The fourth, Terry Wolf, lost her job as director of the Pittsburgh Veterans Affairs Healthcare System last week. The department is considering disciplining as many as 1,000 employees, according to Secretary Bob McDonald.

(Courtesy of VA)

The VA fired Talton for turning a blind eye to evidence that an employee drove a patient who was a recovering drug addict to a crack house, where the patient allegedly got high and paid for sex. The patient was then kicked out of the VA’s substance abuse program.

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In another instance, the VA says, Talton was slow to discipline an employee who got into a car accident while driving a government vehicle and then lied about it to VA investigators.

Chief Administrative Judge Thomas Lanphear found VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson acted correctly in firing Talton, a 31-year federal employee. Lanphear refuted Talton’s argument that the Alabama health care system’s staff shortages, including at leadership levels, had made it difficult to hold employees accountable. Talton had tried to show that he was being held to a higher standard and treated differently than others in similar situations.

“The reason VA has a notorious reputation for not holding employees accountable is because senior department leaders such as Talton have repeatedly refused to do so – even when confronted with overwhelming evidence of malfeasance that harms veterans,” said Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. He called Lanphear’s ruling a “complete no-brainer” that should be “required reading for VA leaders at all levels so they can understand that looking the other way in the face of abhorrent employee misconduct is no longer an accepted management strategy at the department.”

As a member of the Senior Executive Service, Talton “occupied the pinnacle of the federal workforce,” Lanphear wrote. “The responsibility and trust placed in the SES makes the appellant’s breach of his duty more egregious than lower-graded employees and, consequently, renders the decision of the deputy secretary to remove him all the more reasonable.”

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