The Department of Veterans Affairs announced two new investigations over the weekend, looking into possible wrongdoing at one of its hospitals.
The VA said it will examine whether officials at Cincinnati VA facilities are guilty of misconduct, but the new case could again set the stage for an ongoing battle over the agency's ability to punish executives of wrongdoing.
Continued entanglements with the Merit Systems Protection Board have stymied VA attempts to penalize or even fire executives it has accused of wrongdoing in a number of scandals that have plagued the agency.
As a quasi-judicial backstop meant to adjudicate civil service disputes, the MSPB often hears employee appeals when agencies seek to remove or punish agency workers for alleged wrongdoing.
A series of scandals at the VA, coupled with appeal restrictions designed solely for the agency as a result of the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014, have made the MSPB the central battleground pitting accountability versus federal employee rights.
For its part, the MSPB has recently overturned or lessened several VA judgments, including the demotion of two Veterans Benefits Administration executives accused of using their positions for personal gain.
That sustained struggle bubbled over last week, when VA secretary Bob McDonald suggested in a Feb. 10 hearing of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs that the agency shift senior executives from Title 5 to Title 38 status, a move that would limit grievance and appeals avenues for executives.
Senior Executives Association interim president Jason Briefel blasted the idea, saying in a statement that the plan was "farcical."
But there are members of Congress that view MSPB's recent rulings as no more than a stonewall preventing the VA from removing underperforming employees.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., as chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, has been a frequent critic of the MSPB's rulings and said, in a statement on Feb. 8, that the board's powers prevent the VA from being able to reform and recover from the scandals that have rocked it at late.
"MSPB coddles and protects misbehaving employees rather than facilitating fair and efficient discipline," he said. "And as long as we have a system in place that requires a similar standard to discipline federal workers as it does to send criminals to prison, accountability problems at VA and across the government will only continue."
Miller's comments came in response to an MSPB ruling to overturn the firing of Linda Weiss, the former chief of the Albany, N.Y. Stratton VA Medical Center, for the continued fallout over delayed patient care at VA hospitals.
The MSPB released a statement on its website on Feb. 11 calling allegations that it protects poor performers "baseless and unfair."
In noting that while the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act limited VA employees to a week to file an appeal and the MSPB 21 days to file a decision, the board said rules for the burden of proof were unchanged and therefore, its decisions remained valid.
"Therefore, unless the law is changed, these statutory burdens of proof continue to apply, as they do in all other appeals filed at MSPB," the statement said.