Workforce

Veterans' groups sue Trump over acting VA chief

Department of Veterans Affairs (Photo: bakdc / Shutterstock) 

Two advocacy groups are suing the Trump administration over its choice of Robert Wilkie as the acting head of the Department of Veterans Affairs, claiming the selection is illegal.

The lawsuit, filed by the progressive veterans organization VoteVets and government watchdog Democracy Forward, argues that bypassing the number two at VA, Deputy Secretary Thomas Bowman, to take over for David Shulkin constitutes a violation of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act.

"As a matter of law," the suit claims, Shulkin's number two should have taken over the department, rather than Wilkie, the Department of Defense's undersecretary for personnel and readiness.

"Robert Wilkie never had hearings to examine his views of veterans' care, or how he envisions the VA working," said Will Fischer, director of government relations for VoteVets. "This flies in the face of the entire system of checks and balances that federal statutes and our Constitution call for."

While the Trump administration says he resigned, Shulkin maintains he was fired, and the discrepancy is where the language of the Vacancies Act comes in.

The law states the president may appoint someone to take over for a political appointee who "dies, resigns or is otherwise unable to perform the functions and duties of the office." The veterans' groups are claiming that a firing is not included as part of the "otherwise."

However, others have made the case that the language is less clear.

The groups' opposition to Wilkie is also rooted in concerns surrounding the potential privatization of the VA health care system.

"By bypassing Deputy Secretary Bowman, and illegally moving someone from another department over to the VA to act as interim secretary, we believe that the Trump administration is trying to get a head start on its privatization efforts for the department, before hearings on a new secretary even happen," said Fischer. "That cannot stand."

Wilkie takes over the VA as the department has been preparing to transition from its homegrown Vista health record system to acquire a $10 billion commercial replacement offered by Cerner, a deal that has already been on hold for awhile.

Even if a violation of the Vacancies Act is proved to have occurred, actually overturning actions taken by an acting executive is even trickier. The scope of actions that can be nixed under the law is confined to "non-delegable duties," of which there aren't many, if any.

VA is now without potential replacement for Shulkin since White House physician Adm. Ronny Jackson withdrew from consideration after behavior and management allegations came to light.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter

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