At least one investigation has been launched into how a senior adviser to Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin hired on a temporary basis ended up with a coveted job leading a Washington, DC, veterans hospital, CNN has learned.
The VA’s Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection has opened an investigation into the issue, the agency said.
In addition, a memo obtained by CNN shows the Office of Personnel Management has referred the case to the Office of Special Counsel.
The revelations of the VA probe come after CNN obtained a memo suggesting that Lawrence B. Connell was acting as the shadow director of the Washington VA medical center while he was in a political senior adviser position during the presidential transition, and that multiple protocols were violated in officially appointing him to acting director months later.
“We cannot conclude this selection was free from political influence or other impropriety,” the March 19 memo states.
This is the latest in a string of problems plaguing Shulkin, who has been on thin ice with President Donald Trump for weeks, starting with an inspector general report that said he used taxpayer dollars to pay for part of a personal trip. Things only got worse when internal turmoil over how to run the VA spilled over to news reports that Shulkin wasn’t speaking to key senior staff, who were actively lobbying to oust him.
When reached for comment on Friday, Connell, who served over 30 years as an Army medical service officer, told CNN he “had no clue” that the hiring process might have not been properly followed.
“All I know is I applied for the job, I was the best-qualified candidate and that’s all. Now they’re saying Secretary Shulkin had undue influence – he had nothing to do with it,” Connell said. “I don’t know what happened behind the scenes with HR. This came as a bit of a shock.”
Roger French, who is a former personnel officer for the VA and worked there for more than 25 years, said the way Connell got the job was unfair.
“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,” French said. “You have top leadership in the VA subverting competitive principles.”
The VA stood behind Connell’s credentials in a statement to CNN on Friday.
“Regardless of the circumstances related to his appointment, Larry Connell has performed phenomenally as the Washington DC VA Medical Center’s director,” the statement said. “Connell continues to be a tremendous asset to VA, the facility and Veterans in the DC area. He has our full support and confidence.”
OPM did not respond to questions from CNN. The Office of Special Counsel said it could not comment on the issue.
Connell was initially hired in early 2017 to serve in a temporary position as a political appointee at the VA – a position that was intended to help the transition from the Obama administration to the Trump administration.
This senior adviser position was supposed to last no more than 120 days, the memo says, but as the deadline approached, Connell was shifted into a permanent career position as senior executive staffer with the VA, a high-level job that is supposed to be filled after a field of competitive applicants are vetted and interviewed.
The OPM memo says that the official in charge of making the recommendation for the position “selected Mr. Connell without interviewing him or any of the other best qualified candidates.”
“Mr. Connell stated in his resume and Technical Qualifications statement that he was personally selected/hand-picked by the Secretary of the VA,” the memo states, although it’s unclear which job he was referring to.
In addition, the OPM memo says that Connell “never performed the duties” of the transitional position that he was supposed to be in for the first several months he worked at the VA. Instead, Connell was performing the duties of the DC Medical Center Director while he was technically still an adviser and political appointee.
“These actions give the appearance that improper preference or advantage was given to Mr. Connell,” the memo states. “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 committed a prohibited personnel practice.”
The US Office of Special Counsel is unrelated to the office of Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller.
Problems at the DC hospital
Shulkin announced last April that Connell was his pick for acting medical director of the Washington center after an interim VA inspector general report criticized the hospital.
A VA statement at the time said, “an acting director from outside the facility would allow leadership to concentrate on addressing the many challenges identified in the OIG report, without compromising the ongoing internal review.”
Connell said Shulkin asked him to take the acting job.
“Shulkin needed someone,” Connell said. “He knew I ran hospitals in the Army, and he said go over there. He knew it needed a fresh set of eyes.”
Connell’s resume shows that he was Commander of the US Army Health Clinic in Stuttgart, Germany, overseeing a staff of 150, and was the Pacific Regional Medical Command in Honolulu, where he says he oversaw hospitals in Korea, Japan and Hawaii.
Connell told CNN he didn’t want it to look like “someone unqualified was put over at the VA medical center. Nothing is further from the truth.”
A follow-up report this month from the inspector general found that the medical center has for years “suffered a series of systemic and programmatic failures to consistently deliver timely and quality patient care,” and heightening the potential for waste, fraud and abuse of government resources.
VA Inspector General Michael Missal said “failed leadership at multiple levels within VA that put patients and assets … at unnecessary risk.”
Connell responded to CNN, saying, “Everybody equates the IG report with me. You can’t fix something like that place in 10 months. It was based on everything that happened prior to my arrival. I’m getting tied into the sins of the previous director.”
CNN’s Juana Summers, Annie Grayer and Nelli Black contributed to this report.