Problems keep adding up for Shulkin at VA

hiring DC’s VAMC acting director now part of IG investigation

Jonathan Kaupanger
March 26, 2018 - 3:03 pm

Photo by Roberto Koltun/El Nuevo Herald/TNS/Sipa USA

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The unofficial Veterans Affairs flagship medical center can’t catch a break. This time, a new investigation is trying to figure out how Lawrence B. Connell was named as acting director of the Washington DC, VA Medical Center.

According to information gathered by CNN, VA Secretary David Shulkin could have violated multiple protocols when Connell was appointed to acting director. A memo, obtained by CNN, implies that Connell was already acting as a “shadow director” of the medical center while he was acting in a political senior advisor position with the presidential transition. 

“We cannot conclude this selection was free from political influence or other impropriety,” the memo states.

Connell was originally hired as a temporary political appointee at VA in 2017 to help with the presidential transition. The position was supposed to last no longer than 120 days, but according to the memo, Connell was moved to a permanent position as senior executive staffer. These types of jobs are supposed to be filled after applicants are vetted and interviewed. 

“They had 17 top-notch people who have worked their way up through the positions, and they were passed over for Dr. Shulkin’s special adviser,” said Roger French.  French is a former personnel officer at VA. He said that the way Connell got the job was unfair.  “You have top leadership in the VA subverting competitive principles,” he said.

The memo said that the person who made the recommendation “selected Mr. Connell without interviewing him or any of the other best qualified candidates.” It went on to say that Connell never performed the duties of the transitional position that he was in for the first few months he was at VA.  Instead he was acting as the DC VAMC director. 

Even the official news release from the agency on the subject was a little odd last year. On April 12, VA announced that Dr. Charles Faselis would be DC’s acting Medical Center Director. Three hours later, in an update to the release, VA overturned the appointment and named Connell acting director and announcin Faselis as Chief of Staff.

The memo continues by saying, “these actions give the appearance that improper preference or advantage was given to Mr. Connell. Therefore, this case will be referred to the US Office of Special Counsel to determine if anyone involved in the recruitment and selection process may have committee a prohibited personnel practice.”

Earlier this month, VA’s Inspector General released a scathing report on the only VAMC in the country’s capitol. Some of the highlights from this report include a bill for $877,000 for renting three beds for three years when they could have been purchased for $21,000. More than 1,300 boxes of unsecured records were recovered from two warehouses, a basement and a trash dumpster including confidential patient information, including medical scans and records dating back to the 1970’s.

Also found during the investigation. were $800,000 worth of refrigerators, $25k of blood pressure cuffs, two unused forklifts worth $44k and 185 unusable hospital beds.

The IG report did not find evidence that Shulkin or top VA officials knew about the problems at the DC medical center. After the report, Shulkin said “It is time for this organization to do business differently.  These are urgent issues, and many of these issues are unacceptable.”  He then announced a total overhaul of how the VA delivers care for veterans.  “Times change,” Shulkin said.  “Needs change and it’s time to look at how we operate.”