NV Independent: Reno VA director Heller boasted about firing still employed at agency

Nov 5, 2018
In The News

On the campaign trail, Republican Sen. Dean Heller has often touted his advocacy for veterans and attempts to hold the Veterans Administration accountable — most notably by “firing” the head of the Reno VA after the local office made headlines for nation-high backlogs of unprocessed claims.

Though Heller claimed he “shook things up” and fired the former director of the Reno VA in interviews and in campaign ads, the truth is a bit more complicated — the “fired” Reno administrator was placed in another position at the VA and, by all accounts, is still drawing a salary from the federal agency. Heller’s campaign didn’t return an email seeking comment on Friday.

Former Reno’s Veterans Affairs Regional Office director Ed Russell was the subject of intense scrutiny in 2014 following reports that the VARO he managed was one of the worst in the country in terms of processing claims.

The story found that the VA hospital in Reno had an average wait time of 44.3 days, 10th highest out of 140 cities surveyed by USA Today and far above the VA’s target of 14 days. A follow-up audit of Reno’s regional VA office conducted in June 2014 found the department did not accurately process 36 of 71 disability claims reviewed and were untimely or late in processing other claims.

Russell was heavily criticized by both Heller and Democratic Rep. Dina Titus, each members of their respective chambers’ Committee on Veterans Affairs. Heller even called on Russell to resign or for the VA to take steps to remove him from his post.

But Russell was never actually fired from his job, instead being placed on paid administrative leave before being relocated to Washington, D.C. There, still employed by the V.A., he began working remotely in a job created specifically for him, all while still being paid his old salary of about $150,000 per year, according to federal payment records databases. 

The arrangement was highlighted in 2015 by some media organizations, including a critical Las Vegas Review-Journal editorial that acknowledged while Russell was ousted from his position atop the Reno office, he was a year later given a “made-just-for-him, work-from-home position” in Reno after spending a year on administrative leave.

The issue with Russell’s relocation has to do with his status as a General Schedule or “GS” employee, specifically a highest-level GS-15 employee. At that level, there are a number of rules and regulations that protect federal employees from being fired or relocated. Overall, federal employees are rarely fired for poor performance — a 2017 survey estimated that only around 10,000 of the federal government’s 2017 workforce was fired for poor performance.

During a 2015 House Veterans Affairs Committee meeting, Veterans Benefits Administration Principal Deputy Undersecretary Danny Pummill said to Titus that Russell’s situation was unique and part of a court settlement that restricted what the department could say about his position, but that GS rules made it “almost impossible to do anything” with his employment situation.

“We try to do the right thing. In Mr. Russell’s case, I can assure you that he is performing GS-15 work, he is being held accountable on a daily basis. But it was a very strange situation that we had to do to get him that job,” he said during the hearing.

Russell was replaced by Sheila Jackson as head of the Reno VA Regional Office in June 2015.

Several public databases of federal employee pay indicate that Russell was still being paid as of the 2017 fiscal year and working for the VA with a listed job title of “Miscellaneous Administration And Program.” His 2017 base salary was $151,097 and his location was listed in Reno.

A spokesperson for the VA didn’t return an email seeking comment on Russell’s employment status, but congressional sources say he appears to still be working for the agency.