I was going to post this story as an Ethics Quiz when I first saw it yesterday at the Huffington Post. The most recent head of the troubled Veteran’s Affairs Dept., Robert McDonald, falsely claimed in a videotaped comment that he served in the Army’s elite special forces. In fact, his military service of five years was in fact spent almost entirely with the 82nd Airborne Division during the late 1970s. The quiz question was going to be whether this alone required his dismissal.
My conclusion: assuming that he only did something like this only once, and it was not a Sen. Richard Blumenthal or a Brian Williams situation involving repeated self-glorifying falsehoods, I would have been willing to let this pass were he not in the position he is in: Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Veterans are justly sensitive on the topic of stolen valor and imaginary service. The last individual to hold McDonald’s job was asleep on the job and betrayed his constituency: they should not be asked to trust a successor who lies about his military service, even once. I understand that this is a tough verdict, and why others could reasonably argue that one casual remark to cheer a homeless veteran should not be a career catastrophe. In fact, as I write that, I’m thinking that I could be persuaded to adopt that position as well.
However, that is not all there is to this situation. For McDonald had already shown a tendency to play fast and loose with facts, perhaps influenced by his boss, who is similarly inclined, and the Vice -President, of course, when he isn’t harassing women.
When McDonald appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press this month, he was asked what he had accomplished in cleaning up the embattled VA. He replied…
“We’re making fundamental changes in the department in terms of leadership. We have held accountable about 900 employees who are no longer with us that were with us before I became secretary…Nine hundred people have been fired since I became secretary. We’ve got 60 people that we fired who have manipulated wait times.”
This raised the collective antennae of the various fact checkers, because 900 employees sounds like a lot of firings. Sure enough, McDonald was fudging to make himself look good. PolitiFact—a left-leaning fact-checking operation that tends to minimize Democratic lies and manufacture Republican ones—-still eviscerated McDonald’s claims, and concluded..
McDonald said, “Nine hundred people have been fired since I became secretary. We’ve got 60 people that we fired who have manipulated wait times.” He also said that those 900 people “were with us before I became secretary.”
While the data shows that 900 people have been let go under McDonald, half those dismissals were probationary employees, meaning they were just starting work as the scandal had come to light, or weren’t even there when it was going on. Looking at historical trends, the number of terminations looks pretty similar to ordinary personnel churn.
More problematic is the claim that 60 people were fired in direct connection with the wait-time scandal. As of mid February, 14 employees had been ousted in one way or another due to the scandal, with another five directors or officers removed as well. Other employees were disciplined without being terminated. Still, the number of terminated employees is well below McDonald’s stated number.
We rate the statement False.
Over at the Washington Post, the more objective Glenn Kessler gave McDonald his worst fib rating, Four Pinocchios. Wrote the Post’s Factchecker:
Recommending people to receive a letter about their wrongdoing is not the same thing as being fired. Recommending people to be fired is not the same thing as being fired. Employees are not fired unless they have been removed from their jobs — and as of two days before McDonald went on the air, there were eight employees who were removed for manipulating patient wait-time data. So McDonald’s statement is incorrect.
The 900-employee figure does not have much meaning in this context, given the size of the agency and the focus on holding senior executives accountable. Only three of the five executives he proposed for removal using his new authority were actually removed, and the other two were forced into retirement. Five top executives leaving their posts in six months is a record pace for the VA, but only one was officially removed in relation to the scandal. Whether resigning under pressure should be counted as being “held accountable” or being fired — well, McDonald may know better about that himself.
The public expects accuracy as the agency works to restore credibility. It is especially important for McDonald to be precise about his terminology — and to provide truthful information to the public. He earns Four Pinocchios for wildly inflating his “firing” statistics.
I would let the Secretary hit the unemployment line for the false special forces claim alone, but we all know Obama won’t; after all—Susan Rice, Eric Holder, John Brennan. The “Meet the Press” incident, however, can’t be dismissed as a minor lapse of judgement while an official forgot he was being caught on camera. McDonald, I believe it’s fair to say, was intentionally misleading the press and the public. Now veterans can’t trust him, and neither can the general public.
A competent President determined to keep the public trust and to ensure high standards of public service, then, would be obligated to remove the latest Secretary of Veterans Affairs. That statement, however, is irrelevant to Barack Obama. I don’t know why I even wrote it.
There is, however, a strike three. This was McDonald’s apology for the special forces deception, sent to the press:
“While I was in Los Angeles, engaging a homeless individual to determine his Veteran status, I asked the man where he had served in the military. He responded that he had served in special forces. I incorrectly stated that I had been in special forces. That was inaccurate and I apologize to anyone that was offended by my misstatement. I have great respect for those who have served our nation in special forces.”
It is full enough of weasel words to warrant an exterminator. Saying one has been in an organization that one has not isn’t a misstatement, nor is it inaccurate, nor is it an “incorrect” statement. It is statement that the speaker knows is untrue as he makes that statement. It is a statement designed to deceive, which is called a lie.
Incorrectly reciting from memory a fact of one’s life is incorrect. I once told a group that the best man at my wedding was someone other than the individual it was, because I had honestly forgotten. That’s an incorrect statement. I once said that I had a C+ average in law school, when I really had a B-: that statement was inaccurate. I once said that I had graduated from college magna cum laude when I meant to say that my thesis was graded magna cum laude—I really meant to say one thing, and said something else without realizing it. That was a misstatement.
If I tell someone, however, that I fought with the Green Berets, or was a trapeze artist in the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus, or that I was once nominated for a Tony in costume design, or that I climbed the Matterhorn, those statements are not incorrect, inaccurate or misstatements, because they never happened, and I couldn’t, even in a moment of carelessness, think otherwise. They are lies.
Thus McDonald’s attempt to characterize what he said as anything other than a lie is itself a lie. Moreover, “I apologize to anyone that was offended by my misstatement” is infuriating, and a strong indicator that this man sees nothing wrong with spinning the truth—as long as nobody important seems to mind. What was wrong with his special services statement wasn’t that it offended some people. What was wrong is that he lied.
Based on the administration’s abysmal standards of personal and institutional honesty, I predict that the Secretary will keep his job at least until his next whopper—which, I promise you, is right over the horizon.