Former DC VA director fired; Shulkin sees improvement under new management

UPDATE: The Merit Systems Protection Board announced it has ordered a stay on the removal of Brian Hawkins, according to an Aug. 9 press release. Hawkins remains on the VA’s payroll while the Office of Special Counsel reviews the case.

The Veterans Affairs Department’s push to more easily fire employees charged with misconduct has found its latest target — the former director of the Washington, D.C. VA medical center.

Brian Hawkins, the former director of the Washington, D.C. VA Medical Center, was fired on July 28, “because he failed to provide effective leadership at the medical center,” according to a VA press release.

Hawkins was fired just days before the agency’s inspector general issued a report claiming Hawkins mishandled sensitive agency information by sending it to both his and his wife’s personal email accounts, which the VA watchdog said is a violation of agency policy.

“We concluded that Mr. Hawkins violated VA policy by sending VA sensitive information and [sensitive personal information] to his, as well as his spouse’s unsecured, private email accounts,” Jeffery Hughes, the VA’s assistant inspector general for investigations, wrote in his Aug. 1 report to agency leadership.

This was only the latest allegation leveled at Hawkins, who had been reassigned in April, after another watchdog report claimed the VA center, under Hawkins’ leadership, had “placed patients at unnecessary risk” due to medical supply and equipment shortages.

The VA’s Office of Inspector General discovered Hawkins’ violation of the agency email policy only after looking into claims that Hawkins had “authorized thousands of dollars of ratings-based monetary awards without performance appraisals reflecting justification for the awards.”

While the IG office didn’t substantiate claims about unwarranted bonuses, it issued a subpoena for Hawkins’ official VA email account, which uncovered that he had forwarded sensitive information about ongoing VA investigations to his personal email account, and to his wife.

“These documents provided Mr. Hawkins’ spouse, who does not work for VA and has no official need to know, details of ongoing VA investigations with VA sensitive information,” the watchdog report stated.

Since Hawkins’ reassignment in April, Lawrence Connell has served as the acting director of the D.C. VA medical center.

VA secretary: ‘Everything starts with having the right leaders’

In an interview recorded prior to Hawkins’ removal, VA Secretary David Shulkin told Federal Drive with Tom Temin that he had seen signs of improvement under the  D.C. VA center’s new management.

“We have new leadership in place at the Washington, D.C. VA, and of course everything starts with having the right leaders in place. I believe that the staff and the veterans are feeling that the management is listening to them and addressing issues,” Shulkin said. “As so many times we’ve learned in the VA, when problems have been ignored or not dealt with for a long time, you don’t get immediate solutions. Sometimes it takes a while to get to where you want to go. What I think is important is you’re seeing the progress, and you have a path laid out to getting to a place where you know that these are the right services being provided for veterans.”

Under the Trump administration, Shulkin has been given a mandate to fire poor performers at the VA, and he’s recently been given more authority to do so under the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, which the president signed in June.

“The accountability bill has helped us be able to improve the process so that when somebody should no longer be working in the VA, that we can do that more expeditiously, and still allows due process so it’s fair to the employee,” Shulkin said.

While the VA secretary appreciates more latitude to fire employees charged with misconduct, Shulkin said the bill doesn’t address every obstacle in getting the right workforce.

“We haven’t streamlined the hiring process, and it’s still far too difficult and too long to bring new employees into the VA,” Shulkin said. “So we’re continuing to work with Congress to make sure that we can change the workforce regulations to be able to balance out the need of bringing on the right people, at the same time, removing those who have lost the privilege of being able to work in the VA, so that we can get the very right complement of people in serving our veterans.”

The VA Choice and Quality Employment Act, which passed the Senate Aug. 2 and Trump’s signature, includes some significant provisions to help the agency more quickly hire medical center professionals, retain high-quality senior executives and accurately track a growing number of vacancies.

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