Embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki should not yet be fired over the scandal engulfing his agency because "it's one thing to fire somebody, but it's another thing to hold somebody accountable for a violation of the law," Sen. Johnny Isakson said Friday.
"I'm not accusing Eric Shinseki of that," the Georgia Republican cautioned to John Bachman and J.D. Hayworth on "America's Forum" on Newsmax TV. "But I'm saying that, until the investigation is completed, we need to keep our powder dry.
"I don’t want to feel good by firing somebody and then leave the people who are really the culprits not there to hang for the blame that they deserve," said Isakson, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. "We've got to get to the bottom of this."
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Shinseki, 71, a retired four-star Army general who has headed the agency since 2009, said Friday that the agency's Undersecretary for Health Dr. Robert Petzel
resigned. Petzel was to retire this summer, but Shinseki sought his resignation early.
"I am committed to strengthening veterans’ trust and confidence in their VA healthcare system," Shinseki said in announcing the resignation.
Shinseki and Petzel were grilled by angry members of the Senate committee in a Thursday session that at times turned combative about the rapidly spiraling scandal.
Others on Capitol Hill accused Shinseki of being out of touch
with an agency that operates the largest single healthcare system in the country. The VA serves about 9 million veterans a year.
Top VA officials have come under fire after whistleblowers alleged that those running the Phoenix VA Health Care System
falsified medical appointment wait times to hide problems. The delays may have contributed to the deaths of 40 ill veterans at the sprawling Phoenix complex, which treats more than 80,000 veterans a year.
Similar problems have been reported in seven other cities, according to news reports.
Petzel's abrupt resignation came amid increasing calls on Capitol Hill and from veterans' groups for Shinseki to resign and for the U.S. Justice Department to bring a criminal investigation.
President Barack Obama
this week named Deputy White House Chief of Staff Rob Nabors to review VA healthcare procedures and policies.
But in his Newsmax TV interview, Isakson called for a special prosecutor "so that the White House and the Congress can both be assured that there are fair eyes looking at this situation. Any time you have potential criminal activity or a criminal act, you need an independent investigator to make that determination."
This is why Shinseki should not quit yet, the senator said.
"We obviously have situations here where it appears that agencies of the federal government have been lied to and were lied to by people who weren't telling the truth," Isakson said. "If that's the case, the last thing you want to do is get somebody fired and get them out of the picture and not held accountable.
"You want the chain of command intact so that you can go up and down the chain of command, root out where the corruption is, root out where the crime has taken place, root out where the problems have been — and then have the self-satisfaction of not firing somebody, but of having held the agency accountable in fixing the problem."
Isakson was among the senators pummeling Shinseki with questions on Thursday. He reflected on the Vietnam War veteran's comments that he was "mad as hell" about what has occurred on his watch.
"It's got to translate into anger now," he told Bachman and Hayworth. "Secretary Shinseki is being ill served by the senior management of the VA. The accountability that exists in the military — where when you give orders, you follow the orders — is not taking place in the VA.
"It is very obvious that they have ignored admonishments from the top to stop the gaming situation. And worst of all, it's obvious to me that employees at the Veterans Administration are putting their own compensation and their own service ahead of the health and safety of America's veterans by gaming that system.
"That is just dead wrong, potentially criminally wrong," Isakson added. "We've got to deal with it."
And he doesn’t believe Attorney General Eric Holder will get involved.
"I do not feel that he has served the public well in the selective enforcement of federal law," Isakson told Newsmax TV. "If I were president, I would tell the Justice Department to get involved in the investigation of the VA now, because there's potential criminal activity there."
In 2011, Isakson was the first senator to call for Holder's resignation in light of the botched Fast and Furious
gun-running scandal, in which American guns were used to kill U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry and immigration officer Jaime Zapata.
He doesn't think that the White House will seek an investigation, either.
"It's kind of a bunker mentality right now," Isakson said. "You go from Benghazi to the IRS to the VA.
"Every time the president turns around, he's defending himself or he's having one of his lieutenants defend themselves. Every time we turn around, there's some misdirection from the White House.
"The president needs to realize that he's being ill served by the misdirection, that it's time to bring some independence to the accountability mechanism.
"They ought to have an independent investigator of the Veterans Administration — and he ought to call on his Justice Department to do what the attorney general of the United States is supposed to do: to enforce the federal law."
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