As published in the Government Executive.

House panel has advanced a measure aimed at bringing more transparency to disciplinary action taken against Veterans Affairs Department employees, with supporters saying current practices sweep potential wrongdoing under the rug. 

The results of any investigation into alleged wrongdoing by VA employees would be permanently noted in their records under the Personnel Integrity in Veterans Affairs Act, which the House VA Committee’s panel on Oversight and Investigations approved last week in a unanimous vote. The vote came after the committee has spent months investigating allegations of sexual harassment against several VA leaders, some of whom subsequently were reassigned, resigned or retired

The bill is specifically aimed at those who leave the department while they are under investigation. Rep. Scott Franklin, R-Fla., who introduced the measure, suggested VA is too frequently entering into settlement agreements with employees under investigation, which in turn allows them to reapply for other federal jobs without any notation of the allegations against them. 

“VA staff must not be allowed to hide behind settlement agreements and other bureaucratic loopholes to avoid scrutiny and evade accountability for misconduct,” Franklin said when introducing the legislation last month. “I believe in due process, but what the VA is doing is not due process. Striking deals to ‘save time’ sweeps potential wrongdoing under the rug and can prevent a full account of the facts.” 

His bill, he added, would close that “loophole” and bring more accountability to VA employees. 

Tracey Therit, VA’s chief human capital officer, told the panel last month the department supported the intent of the bill, though she noted some logistical difficulties in accessing an employees’ files after they no longer work for the department. She added as a hiring manager herself, she would want to know if an applicant had previously been under investigation for wrongdoing. 

VA expressed some concerns that a personnel record annotation even after allegations were not substantiated could “impact an employee’s constitutional rights.” Congress has for a decade sought to boost accountability of VA employees and to ease their firing, though multiple efforts have run into roadblocks over due process concerns. 

Opponents of those accountability laws have long stated VA managers already possess the tools they need to discipline malfeasant employees and simply need more training to properly utilize them. To that end, the subcommittee also approved the Training Responsible And Informed National (TRAIN) VA Employees Act to require the department to come up with a new training program for its management employees. All managers would be required to participate in the training every two years that would focus on developing performance goals and objectives with employees, effectively managing employees with performance issues and better understanding disciplinary options available to supervisors. 

“Additional management training for VA supervisors would improve their ability to support employees and address performance needs,” said Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H., who introduced the bill. 

VA said it supported the bill, but estimated it would cost $64 million over 10 years to carry out and would only be able to enact it with appropriate appropriations.