EDITORIAL: The VA’s promotion-by-demotion mentality

When Ed Russell, the underperforming director of the VA’s embattled Reno regional benefits office, was placed on administrative leave over the summer, both Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., and U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., rightly pushed for his removal. Mr. Russell was indeed ousted from his job, but not in the way Rep. Titus and Sen. Heller wanted.

Mr. Russell was given a made-just-for-him, work-from-home position — after taking a year off with pay. This prompted an understandably flabbergasted Rep. Titus to demand some accountability from Veterans Affairs.

The Reno office handles disability applications from Nevada and parts of California. The office had been repeatedly criticized for shockingly slow, poor performance under Mr. Russell’s watch. But instead of being reprimanded or terminated, he is now a Reno-based senior adviser to the VA’s Office of Field Operations in Washington, D.C.

When pressed by Rep. Titus during a hearing Monday, Danny Pummill, acting undersecretary for benefits, said the VA’s hands are tied when it comes to handling employees below the senior executive level. As reported by the Review-Journal’s Peter Urban, Mr. Pummill said he believed the position was created for Mr. Russell as part of a court settlement.

“With our GS employees, the rules, regulations and protections make it almost impossible to do anything,” he said. “It was a very strange situation.”

Rep. Titus plans to write the agency’s inspector general to ask for an investigation into this outrageous deal, as well as any similar deals the VA has offered to other underperforming regional managers. She says she will ask other House members and the rest of the Nevada delegation to sign the request.

“I think we should have some accountability for what exactly he (Russell) is doing, why he deserves a special creation of an advisory position, and what he could be advising about when he did such a poor job himself,” Rep. Titus said Tuesday.

Rep. Titus deserves applause for demanding some accountability from the VA and for informing the public about a shocking reward for a chronic underperformer.

It is becoming quite clear that the 2014 VA “reform” bill passed with bipartisan support and signed into law by President Barack Obama doesn’t go far enough in allowing VA administrators to fire problem employees. The VA and all federal agencies — need much stronger, much broader civil service reforms that halt extended paid vacations for poor performance and allow workers to be fired.

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