President Obama said last Friday in announcing the resignation of Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki: “I think he is deeply disappointed in the fact that bad news did not get to him and that the structures weren't in place for him to identify this problem quickly and fix it.” Given the facts already on the public record, that's the most disingenuous thing Obama has said since he promised that “if you like your current health insurance plan, you can keep it. Period. If you like your doctor, you can keep him. Period.”
The immediate cause of Shinseki's departure was revelations that veterans were dying after being placed on a secret waiting list at the Phoenix VA hospital. The purpose of the waiting list, according to a VA whistleblower, was to hide lengthy delays so it would appear the facility's managers were doing their jobs as required. As the Washington Examiner's Mark Flatten observed Friday, “Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, disclosed the allegations at an April 9 hearing, ordered that documents be preserved and directed the inspector general to investigate. Miller said as many as 40 veterans died waiting for care.”
In reporting Miller's disclosure in that hearing nearly eight weeks earlier, Flatten sought comment from Shinseki at VA. As usual, no comment was forthcoming. But multiple VA officials were in the hearing room, and Flatten accurately reported Miller's comments on the same day. It is simply inconceivable to claim that Shinseki could not have known about the Phoenix allegations on April 9. He should have gotten on an airplane that day and flown to Phoenix to direct an investigation, fire those responsible for the deaths and refer evidence to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution. That Shinseki did not take immediate and direct action following the Miller hearing was itself grounds for his dismissal.
Just as disconnected from reality was the president's assertion that “structures to identify the problem and fix it quickly” weren't in place. No federal civil servant is exempt from accountability, thanks to the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act and other laws on the books. Shinseki himself told the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee on May 15 that he did not need new authority to fire incompetent or dishonest VA employees and that VA had already terminated nearly 6,000 of them in the last two years. But, as Government Executive's Eric Katz reported Friday, Shinseki rarely fired anybody in VA's top managerial ranks, the Senior Executive Service. “VA fired just two Senior Executive Service employees for discipline or performance in fiscal 2013, and has terminated a total of three senior executives since fiscal 2008,” according to Katz.
Shinseki knew of the terrible problems at VA and he had the authority to fix them. Obama promised to fix VA even before he became president. Both men knew and failed to act. Only one of them has resigned.