Senators worried new VA accountability office appointment poses conflict of interest

The office within the Department of Veterans Affairs charged with holding senior leaders accountable and protecting whistleblowers has a new no. 2 leader.

Dan Sitterly, who served as VA’s assistant secretary for human resources and administration/operations, security and preparedness for two years as a political appointee, joined the department’s Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection earlier this week.

“Having successfully carried out the duties in that political position, Sitterly will resume his career path at VA at OAWP as a senior, non-political official,” Tucker Brooks, VA’s acting chief of staff, said Tuesday in an email to employees, which Federal News Network obtained.

Brooks credited Sitterly with modernizing VA’s police force, improving employee morale and streamlining hiring efforts.

Sitterly, who spent 11 years as member of the Senior Executive Service before taking a political appointment at VA in 2019, began a new position as OAWP’s deputy assistant secretary effective Tuesday.

With Congress now on high alert for examples of “burrowing,” the VA appointment demonstrates just how complex personnel moves during a presidential transition can be.

The appointment initially raised concerns from Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), ranking member of the Veterans Affairs Committee, and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who wrote to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie this week about the department’s transition efforts.

VA, however, said the appointment is above board.

“Mr. Sitterly was eligible for reinstatement within the agency in accordance with the law since he served as a career SES for many years prior to his presidential appointment,” Christina Noel, a VA spokeswoman, said in an email to Federal News Network. “He did not convert (or relinquish) his career status when serving as a presidential appointee, so there was no need to seek [the Office of Personnel Management]’s approval to reinstate him as a career SES in VA to the deputy assistant secretary position within OAWP.”

Current statute allows former career members of the Senior Executive Service who take a presidential appointment to be reinstated back to the SES, as long as they’re not leaving their political appointment for reasons of “misconduct, neglect of duty or malfeasance.”

Former members of the SES who leave a presidential appointment can negotiate directly with their agencies and receive reinstatement back to Senior Executive Service, according to the law. They don’t have to seek permission from OPM in this situation, and the agency can appoint the former executive to any career position where he or she meets qualification requirements.

Those rules don’t apply for political appointees who don’t have prior career SES experience but still seek conversion to the career civil service. That process is known as “burrowing,” and it’s already raised concerns from Tester, Schatz and several other members of Congress in the early days of the presidential transition.

The two senators asked for a list of political appointees at VA who had been converted to career positions within the last few years. The chairmen of 24 House committees and subcommittees made similar requests to 61 agency heads last week.

Even if VA manages to allay their concerns about “burrowing,” senators say they fear Sitterly’s new career appointment at OAWP raises questions about a potential conflict of interest.

OAWP has consistently struggled to earn trust from VA employees and members of Congress, despite attempts by leadership to better train investigators.

“Mr. Sitterly’s position change also poses an additional concern: the very nature of OAWP’s work of investigating senior leader misconduct and allegations of whistleblower retaliation by supervisors  inside the VA involves examining decisions by VA human resources officials,” the senators wrote. “With Mr. Sitterly in the number two position, which may make him the acting head of OAWP when the current administration exists, he is in the position of exercising substantial influence over investigations of his former office and colleagues and beyond.”

VA’s inspector general has previously said OAWP posed unnecessary risks for whistleblowers at the department. In some cases, OAWP referred complaints back to the VA organizations that were the subjects of the problems whistleblowers complained about.

But besides their concerns about recent changes at OAWP, Tester and Schatz also discouraged VA from making last-minute policy changes during the presidential transition.

“Our concern with your transition activities does not end with information sharing and cooperation with the incoming administration,” they wrote. “Rather, we are deeply troubled by previously announced and ongoing efforts to rush potentially harmful policies through the department in the last days of the Trump Administration while at the same time attempting to embed politically connected individuals into career positions within VA. This concern and the questions contained in our correspondence follow the same oversight practices of congressional Republicans and  Democrats used over decades to ensure an outgoing administration does not harm the American people at the end of its tenure in office.”

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