*As lawmakers on Capitol Hill are taking part in the impeachment process, President Trump is quietly seeking to accomplish reforms at the Department of Veterans Affairs. But realizing this reform requires Assistant VA Secretary, Tamara Bonzanto, in leading accountability efforts.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is the second largest federal agency, and is responsible for taking care of our Veterans. Just a few years ago, it was the most tarnished agency in the nation.
Following the widely reported 2014 Phoenix VA wait-list scandal in which Veterans died waiting for care on secret lists, the Obama Administration struggled to make leadership changes that could fix the issues. One of the most pivotal laws that needed to be passed was the VA Accountability Act which would enable more swift termination of bad employees by the Secretary.
The Obama Administration would not go against the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and support the bill – despite the fact it had broad bipartisan support. It would not be until President Trump was elected that Congress had a president in the White House that would completely raise the veteran interest over those of union politics that the law was quickly passed and bold reforms began to take place.
The image at VA has been steadily improving as a result of President Trump’s heavy handed set of expectations that the agency allow Veterans to get care quickly, only those employees that live VA’s values should be working at the agency, and continued commitment for a strong budget.
Within the first few months of taking office, President Trump issued Executive Order 13793 to improve accountability at the VA. Not long after, Congress passed, and the President signed Public Law 115-41, which established a new VA Assistant Secretary, reporting directly to the Secretary, with the authority to investigate the performance of senior executives and policy-making or supervisory employees where there is a reason to suspect a violation of a provision of law, mismanagement, gross-waste of funds, abuse of authority, or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.
These actions by President Trump defined the strength of his management agenda, his expectation to see a new culture of accountability at the VA, and set an example for the future of government accountability.
… a new culture of accountability at the VA, and an example for the future of government accountability.”
Assistant Secretary Bonzanto is pivotal to truly achieving the best results at the agency and Trump’s best odds at being the best VA president in modern times; which he is currently on track for, depend largely on Bonzanto. Since January of 2019, Bonzanto has been in her role overseeing accountability investigations, analyses, and recommendations.
Her role is unique because the scope and authority of her office is established in law, and affords her unique independence from other VA offices, and is a notable example to other federal agencies.
When the office she is charged with was first established at VA, it was administratively buried in hundreds of past-due complaints that required disparate investigations. The VA’s Inspector General reported that the new office desperately needed highly qualified leaders to organize a fully functioning accountability office. Taking action to relaunch the office, President Trump appointed Bonzanto, who has extensive experience.
Examining Bonzanto, her background is interesting, impressive, and unexpected. She grew up in Trinidad, migrated to the U.S. in 1997, served as a Navy Corpsman from 2001 to 2006 and then served as a nurse case manager for the Army 2012-2015. She earned a Doctorate in Nursing Practice, coordinating troop care between the Department of Defense (DoD), VA, and civilian healthcare providers in 13 northeastern states.
Today, @SenatorTester met with Assistant Secretary Tamara Bonzanto to discuss the concerning findings in a report released by @VetAffairsOIG last week. Ranking Member Tester will continue to press #VA to protect whistleblowers and hold VA executives accountable. pic.twitter.com/nr9hu2JTSu
— Senate VA Dems (@SVACDems) October 29, 2019
Prior to her presidential appointment by President Trump Dr. Bonzanto served as the lead healthcare investigator for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Veterans Affairs’ Subcommittee on Oversight and investigations. In my opinion, Dr. Bonzanto not only embodies the American dream, but her role and mission are vital to fulfilling our nation’s duty to veterans and she is the key to successfully ensuring President Trump’s legacy as the best veterans president in history.
Dr. Bonzanto not only embodies the American dream, but her role and mission are vital to fulfilling our nation’s duty to veterans…”
From the moment she joined the VA, Dr. Bonzanto has been working to fulfill the intent of the law and the vision of the president. She has reviewed all the critical cases, established an advanced tracking system, implemented trend analyses, reorganized the office operations, ensured investigators’ appropriate training, and issued a comprehensive directive to govern all office functions within and across the VA. Her rapid first-year accomplishments have set a new standard for executive leadership.
In preparation for 2020, a high-profile year for President Trump as he runs for reelection, Dr. Bonzanto is pursuing the highest standards for independent accountability analyses across the VA. Applying her wealth of operational and oversight experience, she is determining the critical expertise and leadership roles that are required to execute strategic capabilities, including unprecedented analyses of VA executives.
I had the honor of swearing in VA’s new Assistant Secretaries: Tamara Bonzanto with the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection; James Gfrerer with the Office of Information and Technology; and Daniel Sitterly with the Office of Human Resources and Administration. pic.twitter.com/emJYOkJqHu
— Secretary Robert Wilkie (@SecWilkie) January 7, 2019
As Dr. Bonzanto qualifies and develops a top-tier investigative and analytic team, she is helping bring about a longtime hope and expectation among all American Veterans—hold VA leaders accountable for their actions. President Trump has regular contact with the VA Secretary, as a member of his cabinet, but he has very limited access to the nearly 380,000 employees that work for the VA.
The VA is one of the oldest, most entrenched , and unaccountable government bureaucracies…
The VA is one of the oldest, most entrenched , and unaccountable government bureaucracies —with the power to spend billions of taxpayers’ dollars. The enormous unaccountable spending creates a culture of self-promotion, where bureaucrats are incentivized to influence the public perception of their work, hide their errors, and overlook the mismanagement, and corruption in their ranks.
The veterans who rely on the VA, and the VA employees who want to live up to the mission that Americans have entrusted them with are often afraid to complain, but those who have spoken up have been met with retribution by previous senior executives.
Dr. Bonzanto and her carefully selected team will help ensure that the complaints are heard, investigated, and integrated with analyses of the systemic trends that affect the quality of VA services to veterans.
I met with @VAOAWP Assistant Secretary Tamara Bonzanto this afternoon to discuss the importance of accountability and whistleblower protection at the @DeptVetAffairs. I look forward to working together as we strive to put our veterans first. pic.twitter.com/ZW5OPMdqU5
— Senate VA Committee (@SenateVA) February 13, 2019
Unfortunately, some Veterans believe that Dr. Bonzanto will be forced to relinquish or diminish her legal and presidentially-commuted authority to investigate VA executives. She is surrounded by thousands of potential cases of wrong-doing, and backlogs of cases that precede the President’s Administration. She is also surrounded by hundreds of senior executives, across the country, that have long-standing political relationships and will use those connections to protect any hidden misdeeds from scrutiny.
It is clear to veterans that Dr. Bonzanto needs their support, and the support of all Americans. As her leadership brings a new generation of accountable government employees into the senior ranks, we can no longer assume that our massive bureaucracies are naturally responsible and honest. We need diligent accountability to reveal the evidence for effective governance. Without such independent accountability we can not believe any Member of Congress or the President has the power to oversee these missions that are critical to our nation and the welfare of our heroes.
Christopher Neiweem is an political writer, tech lobbyist, small business owner, and Iraq WarVeteran that advises companies on how to navigate the federal government and regulatory challenges of disrupting the status quo.
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