CHARLES TOWN – Sheriff Pete Dougherty, who spent nearly two decades working for Veterans Affairs in D.C. prior to becoming the county’s top lawman, said Tuesday he believes Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki was correct to resign after the revelation that VA employees had been covering up months-long wait times for vets seeking care.
“When you are a federal employee, you take an oath to serve this country,” said Dougherty, whose work focused on homeless veterans. “In the VA, most of them take it as a sacred bond to make the lives of the veterans better. What is really disheartening to me, that in order to make themselves look better [they] didn’t put the veterans first.”
But Dougherty also had praise for Shinseki, who served two terms in Vietnam, even returning to service after losing part of a foot in combat.
“He rose through the ranks to become chief of staff of the army,” Dougherty said. “He was a man who was not afraid of facing tough challenges.”
In leaving the VA, Shinseki took responsibility for employees who were falsifying documents in the VA’s health care system, which employs some 327,000.
Some have questioned whether others should join Shinseki in taking responsibility for the VA’s woes.
“I think before the secretary left, he cancelled performance bonuses for senior executives – the people who run the health care networks, hospitals. (Shinseki) thought it was a systemic problem. He also took action to fire people who had direct responsibility – like the VA’s Phoenix leadership. I think the difficult task now is to make sure in his absence that the pursuit continues and those who did wrong are disciplined or fired.”
While Dougherty supports Shinseki’s decision to step down, he does so “with regret.”
“My personal regret is that he was a man who wanted to get in there and fix the problem and make government work.” he said. “That’s all I think you can expect of good public service.
“I’m afraid when the next secretary comes in, he’s going to want to get past this problem. It may not get the in-depth review and systemic change; it may be glossed over.”
While some have blasted Shinseki saying he should have known members of his staff were reporting false wait times, Dougherty said “government is more complex” than that.
“I don’t expect someone to know everything about each of the 23 million veterans and more than 250,000 VA employees,” Dougherty said. “You have to rely on your staff.
“That was part of what my job was to go and tell people the ugly truth. Other people would want to say it is going well. That’s not what Shinseki wanted. My job at the VA was to tell people that things were going well or not going well. This secretary wanted the good and bad news.”
Dougherty recalled that he first met Shinseki as the National Director of VA Homeless Programs five years ago. Dougherty would brief him regularly on how his programs were helping improve the lives of veterans.
“(Shinseki) asked me to create a plan to not reduce or manage the problem, but to end the homelessness among veterans,” Dougherty said. “We created preventive services. Prevention had never been done before.”
Friday, Dougherty was in D.C. to attend the annual meeting of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans and to help hand out the first Pete Dougherty Award sponsored by the Home Depot Foundation.
The $50,000 yearly award is given to organizations that work to help homeless veterans. Dougherty said he was on hand at Shinseki’s press conference and shook his hand as he headed to turn in his resignation to President Obama.
“I respect him because he took on some very tough challenges — homelessness of veterans. He didn’t want to try to manage the problem, but to end it. He embarked on a five-year plan to end veterans homeless. No one ever did that before.”
When talking to veterans who get care at the VA in Martinsburg, Dougherty said he has heard positive reports.
“Many vets feel that at VA they are getting the health care they need,” he said.