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Bilirakis asks for investigation of VA hiring practices

He wants to know why the agency doesn’t keep track of convicted sex offenders who work in its facilities.

By PAUL DE LA GARZA
Published July 4, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG — Rep. Michael Bilirakis has requested an investigation into why the Department of Veterans Affairs does not keep track of convicted sexual offenders employed by the agency.


Bilirakis has asked the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, to look into the hiring practices at the VA, the federal government’s second-largest agency with more than 218, 000 employees.

“The VA does not even track sex offenders working within its various branches, which is particularly troubling given the recidivism rate among sex offenders,” Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, said in a written statement last week.

“I believe it is important that we monitor our VA facilities and staff in order to provide a safe environment for our nation’s veterans and VA employees,” he said.

Last month, the St. Petersburg Times reported that Bay Pines VA Medical Center employs convicted sex offenders.

During the summer, the hospital also runs a volunteer program for scores of teenage students from across Pinellas.

Bilirakis, who chairs a House subcommittee on VA oversight and investigations, ordered the VA to produce the identity and location of all convicted sex offenders on the agency payroll.

But in a letter to the subcommittee, VA Secretary Jim Nicholson said the agency does not have such lists. When hiring ex-offenders, Nicholson said, the VA follows “suitability” guidelines established by the Office of Personnel Management.

The guidelines address the nature and severity of the offense, age when offense was committed, length of time since conviction and evidence of rehabilitation or treatment.

“Suitability means fitness or eligibility for employment and refers to identifiable character traits and past conduct which are sufficient to determine whether a given individual is likely or not to be able to carry out the duties of a federal job with appropriate efficiency and effectiveness,” Nicholson wrote in the two-page letter, dated June 9.

Nicholson said federal employment policy “does not envision agencies establishing separate policies governing the employment of individuals who have engaged in criminal acts.”

He said the VA offers treatment and rehabilitation programs to veterans with varied backgrounds, including criminal histories.

“They have come to VA, usually with multiple substance abuse problems, often homeless,” Nicholson wrote. 

“Through our program … these veterans acquire job skills and the opportunity to become productive members of the community.”

Nicholson said Bay Pines had hired three veterans administrators think were successfully rehabilitated into the program.

In response to recent queries from the Times, the VA has insisted it conducts criminal background checks of all job applicants.

But previous GAO studies dispute that, saying the lack of stringent hiring policies could endanger patients.

In a hearing held by Bilirakis three weeks ago, GAO officials testified that the VA had made some improvements but that gaps remained.

In requesting a GAO inquiry, Bilirakis said his subcommittee “will continue to conduct oversight of VA’s lackluster personnel policies.”

“We’re glad to consider any additional works that Mr. Bilirakis might be interested in,” GAO spokesman Paul Anderson said.

[Last modified July 4, 2006, 20:07:40]


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