A former agency official says the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is slow to discipline employees for misconduct and too willing to settle disciplinary cases without firing the workers involved.
Former agency counsel Ken Carroll said the VA’s disciplinary process is frustrating to workers and damaging to the agency's performance.
"The bottom line is: It’s difficult to fire someone. Period," Carroll said in an exclusive interview with the News4 I-Team.
Carroll is a former official with the VA’s Office of General Counsel in Dallas. Carroll said a recent News4 investigation into a deadly incident involving a VA employee’s misconduct in Dallas showed flaws in how the agency handles problem workers.
VA manager Jed Fillingim, while in Dallas in 2010 on a government trip, drove a government truck after a night of drinking with a colleague and a female companion. According to police reports and interrogation tapes obtained by the I-Team, the woman fell out of the truck while it was moving and died. She suffered severe head injuries and a severed leg in the fall.
Though Fillingim admitted drinking before driving the vehicle, criminal charges were not filed. A blood alcohol test conducted hours after the incident showed Fillingim’s blood-alcohol level at .03, below the legal limit.
Serving as an agency attorney reviewing Fillingim’s case, Carroll said he formally recommended Fillingim be fired for his misconduct. But Carroll said he was overruled by colleagues at VA headquarters in Washington.
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Fillingim was allowed to resign from his Mississippi-based position. The I-Team found he was rehired months later to a different position in Georgia.
Carroll said, Fillingim "violated the law when he drank and got in the vehicle. You can’t use the vehicle for bar hopping. They were clearly inebriated. Jed claims he wasn’t. But we know his breathalyzer showed .03 hours after he was arrested. We all felt the facts of the case were egregious.”
The mother of the victim in the Dallas incident said Fillingim should have been fired.
“It's just not right. They should fire him. There’s been no criminal punishment. No VA punishment. He’s making the same salary," said Annette Berry.
"I’d like to know why the VA handled this so poorly and why Jed has this job," Berry said.
The Department of Veterans Affairs declined numerous requests for comment on Carroll's comments.
In a recent interview with the News4 I-Team, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald said, “You can’t create the culture you want unless you hold people accountable.”
He said, “We’ve terminated 3,700 employees.”
Carroll, who retired in 2016 from the agency, said the VA is too reluctant to order the firings of employees, Fillingim included. He said the appeals process for workers is stringent and lengthy. He said the agency often prefers to settle cases with problem workers, rather than terminate those employees, to save the time and expense of litigating the appeals.
"I hear it from supervisors, who are very, very frustrated about how difficult it is to fire employees," Carroll said.
Federal employee appeals records show the agency reached settlements with 71 percent of VA employees who successfully challenged their terminations or disciplinary actions to the federal government’s Merit Systems Protection Board in 2015.