June 23, 2017

Trump to sign VA bill to protect whistleblowers, expedite firing of problem workers

WASHINGTON — President Trump is scheduled to sign legislation Friday designed to protect whistleblowers while making it easier to fire problem employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The "VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017" makes permanent an office created by a Trump executive order earlier this year to look into claims made by whistleblowers and to protect them from retaliation.

It also shortens the timeframes allowed for employee appeals of disciplinary actions and mandates that courts reviewing the actions uphold them if there is “substantial evidence” they are warranted.

“The administration is committed to ensuring the nation’s veterans have access to the care, services, and benefits they have earned,” the White House said in a statement about the legislation. “To achieve this goal, it is critical that employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) are held to the highest performance standards, and that they are accountable when those standards are not met.”

The law marks the second time Congress is trying to short-circuit the disciplinary process. The Choice Act passed in 2014 sought to do away with senior executives’ rights to appeal discipline to the Merit Systems Protection Board.

But a court ruled that was unconstitutional because the expedited procedure violated the Constitution's so-called "appointments clause" by placing too much power with an administrative judge.

The new law also gets rid of senior executives’ right to appeal to the MSPB but replaces that process with an internal VA grievance procedure.

The bill also would allow the VA to take back bonuses paid to employees found guilty of misconduct and would prohibit employees who are appealing discipline from being placed on paid administrative leave.

Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative advocacy group, hailed the legislation as an important step forward in a "new era of accountability, customer focus, and integrity at the department."

“Unions tried to defend the status quo and block these reforms, but members on both sides of the aisle finally recognized just how severe the problems at the VA really are," CVA Policy Director Dan Caldwell said. "Americans should be proud of the way Congress and this administration came together to take decisive action to help our veterans."

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