WASHINGTON — The head of the Veterans Affairs Department told lawmakers he intends to try out a new law that makes it easier to fire — and keep fired — deficient department employees. The test case: the former director of the agency’s main medical center here.
The center’s director, Brian Hawkins, oversaw an operation that the department’s inspector general said was plagued by the “highest levels of chaos.” After the inspector general findings were released in a rare interim report in April, the department immediately transferred Mr. Hawkins to a job at its nearby headquarters. It then fired him in late July, saying in a statement that he had “failed to provide effective leadership at the medical center” or live up to the department’s values.
But now, the government’s Merit Systems Protection Board has issued a stay on the removal proceedings, buying Mr. Hawkins time to build a defense that he was wrongly terminated and return to work.
That, in turn, has opened the door for David Shulkin, the secretary of veterans affairs, to put to a high profile test the powers of the new law, signed in June by President Trump. The law is meant to help the secretary remove bad actors and restore trust in the more than 350,000-person agency.
To do so, Mr. Shulkin has indicated to congressional leaders that he plans to abandon the earlier effort to oust Mr. Hawkins. Instead, he would remove Mr. Hawkins with fresh evidence from the inspector general and do it using the new law, which affords fewer protections for the accused.
It was unclear when Mr. Shulkin intends to make such a move. Mr. Hawkins could challenge the action in court or appeal it to a new, internal review board composed of his fellow senior executives. A lawyer representing Mr. Hawkins could not immediately be reached for comment.
In a statement on Wednesday, the department said it had complied with the stay but would “quickly” reassess Mr. Hawkins’s employment given the new evidence and authority.
“No judge who has never run a hospital and never cared for our nation’s veterans will force me to put an employee back…