AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
VoteVets, Democracy Forward Push Back Against Potentially Unlawful Partisan Screening of Veterans Law Judges
The White House Reportedly Rejected Any Judges Deemed Insufficiently Loyal to GOP in Their Personal Politics, Despite Board’s History of Nonpartisanship
Trump Administration’s Action Exacerbates Problems for the Board as it Works Through Years-long Backlogs in Claims for Tens of Thousands of Injured Veterans
Washington, DC — Today, VoteVets and Democracy Forward demanded the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Inspector General immediately investigate the Trump Administration’s politicization of the selection process for Veterans Law Judges on the historically nonpartisan Board of Veterans’ Appeals. The letter follows reporting that the White House demanded information on potential judges’ personal voting patterns and political associations and later rejected three Democratic candidates and one independent while accepting only Board candidates that were Republican or had voted in GOP primaries. The Administration’s unprecedented partisan litmus test cuts the pool of qualified candidates for the Board in half, at a time when the Board seeks to reduce the extraordinary delays in VA disability claim processing that have long plagued veterans seeking to get the help the President promised them.
“The politicization of what should be an absolutely apolitical process is going to come straight down on our veterans, to their detriment,”said Will Fischer, Iraq War veteran, and Director of Government Relations for VoteVets.“In order to be fair, and thorough, this board needs the best people, regardless of party identification. The Trump administration’s party loyalty test tosses out some of the very best qualified candidates, creating staffing delays and confusion at a time veterans can’t afford it.”
The Trump Administration’s attempt to punish applicants to the historically nonpartisan Board for their personal politics raises serious concerns about violations of law and policy. The U.S. Constitution, federal hiring laws, and VA policy prohibit government officials from retaliating against employees for personal political activity protected by the First Amendment. Furthermore, the Privacy Act prohibits agencies from maintaining records concerning individuals’ political activity and using those records to punish employees.
Today’s Inspector General demand seeks an investigation into, among other things:
- Whether the VA collected or maintained records regarding the Board applicants’ First Amendment-protected activities, including party affiliation, in violation of the Privacy Act;
- What role, exactly, the White House played in the selection process for the four rejected applicants; and
- Whether the political affiliations of the rejected applicants for Veterans Law Judge positions played any part in the VA’s decisions concerning their appointment to the Board.
“This President disrespects veterans by trying to turn a nonpartisan body like the Board of Veterans’ Appeals into a playground for partisan warfare,” said Democracy Forward Executive Director Anne Harkavy. “The people who make sure our veterans get the benefits they earned should be chosen on merit and nonpartisan credentials, not whether an applicant voted for President Trump or has a Breitbart byline.”
The Board has historically been a nonpartisan body and its members are drawn largely from the ranks of career civil servant attorneys with the requisite, specialized legal experience to fairly adjudicate veterans’ claims. All eight applicants recommended for positions were career Board attorneys with six to 12 years of experience who had been serving as acting Veterans Law Judges due to the staffing shortage. Each had been vetted by multiple interviewers and recommended for promotion by Board Chairman Cheryl L. Mason.
For veterans, the appeals process is already very lengthy. During fiscal year 2017, veterans whose claims were resolved by the Board waited an average of seven years for their appeals to be resolved after initiating their appeal.
The investigations demand letter was sent December 6, 2018. VoteVets and Democracy Forward also sent the VA a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for further information about the Board’s selection process on November 9, 2018.
Democracy Forward is a nonprofit legal organization that scrutinizes Executive Branch activity across policy areas, represents clients in litigation to challenge unlawful actions, and educates the public when the White House or federal agencies break the law.
VoteVets continues to focus on matters including, but not limited to, foreign policy, energy security, veterans’ unemployment, and opening military service to life-long Americans born to undocumented immigrants, as well as continued investment in care for veterans. More often than not, Veterans have a stake in the top issues of the day, and VoteVets.org is committed to getting their voices heard on these issues. For that reason, VoteVets.org has, and will continue to, work with all progressive allies representing labor, immigration, gay and lesbian rights, and environmentalists, when their issues coincide with the needs of troops and veterans.