Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Trump loyalists at VA shuffling, purging employees before new secretary takes over

Ahead of Robert Wilkie’s likely confirmation to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, Trump loyalists at the agency are taking aggressive steps to purge or reassign staff members perceived to be disloyal to President Trump and his agenda for veterans, according to multiple people familiar with the moves.
The transfers include more than a dozen career civil servants who have been moved from the leadership suite at VA headquarters and reassigned to lower-visibility roles.
The employees served agency leaders, some dating back more than two decades, in crucial support roles that help a new secretary.
None said they were given reasons for their reassignments.
The moves are being carried out by a small cadre of political appointees led by Acting Secretary Peter O’Rourke who have consolidated power in the four months since they helped oust Secretary David Shulkin.
The reshuffling marks a new stage in a long estrangement between civil servants and Trump loyalists at VA, where staff upheaval and sinking morale threatens to derail service to one of the president’s key constituencies, according to current and former employees.
Among those reassigned is an experienced scheduler whom Wilkie told colleagues he wanted to work for him once he is confirmed by the Senate, according to former and current employees.
Other career senior executives with institutional knowledge of VA’s troubled benefits operation also have been sidelined, some to other cities, according to multiple people who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity. A high-ranking executive appointed during the Obama administration to a six-year term quit last week after clashing with Trump aides. Even some Trump appointees have been pushed out for challenging the leadership group.
VA officials say the reassignments will help their efforts to improve the agency’s overall culture and performance. Still, it is highly unusual for a leader in an acting, caretaker role — which began for O’Rourke on May 30 — to make such significant changes before a permanent leader arrives.
“Under President Trump, VA won’t wait to take necessary action when it comes to improving the department and its service to Veterans,” spokesman Curt Cashour said in an email. Wilkie, according to Cashour and a spokeswoman for the nominee, has had no hand in the changes as he awaits Senate confirmation.
Current and former employees — and now alarmed members of Congress — call the reshuffling a loyalty purge that is targeting the alleged political sympathies of civil servants whose jobs are, by definition, nonpartisan.

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