Obernolte Sides With Federal Employees’ Union Over VA Management

Congressmen Jay Obernolte this week took a fair cross section of his Republican constituents aback by joining with another Republican in siding with the American Federation of Government Employees in an apparent dispute between Veterans Affairs management and the union.
Obernolte’s supporters leapt to his defense, insisting the intricacies and subtleties of the issue he had taken up made it prone to misinterpretation, asserting he was remaining faithful to his conservative ideals.
With only a handful of exceptions, Obernolte has sought to identify himself as strongly to the right politically. He has succeeded as an elected official by virtue of his location at the epicenter of one of the last remaining bastions of Republicanism in California. There is debate as to whether the stance he took this week remains solidly in keeping with the reputation he has cultivated or if he is, chameleon-like, preparing to make a lurch leftward as the Congressional district he represents is shifting closer to an alignment with the Democratic Party which dominates the Golden State.
The owner, president, and technical director of FarSight Studios, a video game development company, Obernolte first entered the political fray at the age of 35 in 2005, when he was elected to the Big Bear City Airport Board, overseeing the Big Bear City Airport in the unincorporated San Bernardino Mountain community district. In 2010, Obernolte was elected to Big Bear Lake City Council, where he eventually acceded to the position of mayor. In 2014, he was elected to the California Assembly, representing the heavily Republican 33rd District, which spanned the San Bernardino Mountain Communities and a good portion of San Bernardino County’s Mojave Desert. He succeeded Tim Donnelly, widely celebrated as one of the state’s and nation’s most conservative politicians, who left the Assembly that year in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to obtain the Republican nomination for California governor.Obernolte sought and generally succeeded in living up to the mold of a conservative politician not unlike Donnelly, managing to please his predominantly Republican constituents by resigning himself to a somewhat ineffectual role as a Republican legislator in Democrat-dominated Sacramento by sponsoring and supporting some show legislation that adhered to Republican ideals but failed to gain passage while simultaneously authoring/sponsoring less partisan-oriented general purpose legislation that garnered across-the-board support of both parties.
In 2020, when 8th Congressional District Congressman Paul Cook announced his intention of leaving Congress to run instead for San Bernardino County supervisor, the ambitious Obernolte immediately declared his candidacy to succeed Cook, garnering key Republican backing along the way. He ultimately succeeded in getting elected to the 8th District Congressional post and in 2022 ran for reelection to Congress in the 23rd Congressional District, the lines for which had been redrawn in the reapportionment that followed the 2020 Census and which subsumed much of the previous 8th District and remained predominantly Republican.
In roughly 79 percent of his votes, he has voted in opposition to President Joseph Biden’s position on the involved issues.
On January 6, 2021, Obernolte voted against counting Arizona’s and Pennsylvania’s electoral votes in the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election.
He voted against the creation of the January 6 Commission and against impeaching President Donald Trump based on accusations that the former president had incited his supporters to attack the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.
In February 2021, Obernolte voted against the Equality Act, a bill that would prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation by amending the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act to include new protections.
In February 2021, Obernolte voted against the resolution that stripped Marjorie Taylor Greene of her committee assignments as a consequence for what Democrats in Congress called her “incendiary and violent” statements.
In March 2021, he voted against the American Rescue Plan Act.
Obernolte supported overturning Roe v. Wade, and has stated that because the U.S. Constitution does not mention abortion explicitly, states may outlaw it.
In 2023, Obernolte was among 47 Republicans to vote in favor of House of Congress Resolution 21, calling upon President Biden to remove U.S. troops from Syria within 180 days.
Most of Obernolte’s successful legislation involves what at least appears to be nonpartisan, middle-of-the-road regulation or deregulation, often touching on technological innovation. His Fellowship and Traineeship for Early Career Artificial Intelligence Researchers Act and Next Generation Computing Research and Development Act were included in the bipartisan House Resolution 2225, the National Science Foundation For the Future Act and House Resolution 3593, the Department of Energy Science for the Future Act, respectively. His first standalone legislation, House Resolution 3533, establishing occupational series for federal positions in software development, software engineering, data science, and data management, passed the House of Representatives in September 2021.
Though he generally falls to the conservative side of the liberal conservative divide, he has had a few exceptions.
In June 2021, he voted to repeal the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002.
Despite his aforementioned February 2021 vote against the Equality Act, Obernolte on July 19, 2022 joined with 46 other Republican representatives in voting for the Respect for Marriage Act, which granted the right to same-sex marriage under federal law, stating after he did so that “As an ardent advocate for limited government, I do not feel that government should be empowered to dictate the terms of a marriage.”
This week, on April 10, Obernolte and House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mike Bost (Republican-Illinois) wrote a joint letter to Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough seeking information relating the disposition of a supervisorial employee at the Loma Linda Veterans Administration Medical Center who has been accused by lower ranking employees at the the medical center of creating a hostile work environment, ultimately reducing accountability, impacting employee morale, and hindering the good delivery of services to veterans.
The letter thanked McDonough for responding an earlier letter sent on January 25, 2023 requesting all Administrative Investigations Board reports regarding the yet-unidentified supervisory employee. Without being specific as to the reports’ contents, the letter states that the Administrative Investigations Board report, dated February 8, 2021, found the supervisory employee was creating a hostile work environment. The letter noted that the Administrative Investigations Board included roughly 4,000 pages of exhibits in its report and investigators conducted 57 hours of transcribed interviews with 36 witnesses over the course of the investigation. That investigation and two others conducted between July 2020 to May 2022, the letter stated, substantiated that the supervisory employee was creating a hostile work environment. Both the Administrative Investigations Board and one of the other investigations recommended the supervisory employee be removed from employment with the Veterans Administration, according to the letter.
Obernolte’s and Bost’s letter states, “Unfortunately, despite the investigations’ consistent evidence and recommendations, and the massive amount of time, money, and energy spent investigating the supervisory employee over nearly three years, the supervisor remains employed at the VA Loma Linda Healthcare System.”
Obernolte’s and Bost’s letter refers to the continued employment of the supervising employee as an “untenable situation,” with which Obernolte and Bost are frustrated. “Despite medical center leadership doing everything possible within its legal constraints, the supervisory employee is still employed and is repeatedly creating an environment that you claim the Veterans Administration does not tolerate,” their letter states. “Consequently, employees are forced to either work in a hostile environment or leave the Veterans Administration.”
According to the letter, “Our veterans, the dedicated VA workforce, and taxpayers deserve to know why bad employees are still employed by VA and accountability is being swept under the rug.”
Some San Bernardino County Republicans, including four who voted for Obernolte, this week questioned why Obernolte either assumed or moved to the conclusion that the unidentified Veterans Administration supervisor had acted inappropriately. They noted that the report was still being kept under wraps, that the supervisor had not been identified, that the supervisor was not being given an opportunity to defend his action and that the complaints against the supervisor had been lodged through the American Federation of Government Employees, a union representing Veterans Administration employees.
As Republicans, Obernolte’s constituents said they considered unions – and government employee unions in particular – to represent a dark force in American society, one that is, basically and ultimately they said, decreasing the efficiency of government and intensifying the lack of useful productivity of government employees in general and undercutting the quality of governmental services while escalating the cost of government and increasing the burden on taxpayers. They believe, as Republicans, that management should be given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to disputes with labor. They observed that in addition to not identifying the supervisor they complained of in their joint April 10 letter to McDonough, neither Congressman Obernolte nor Congressman Bost marshaled the evidence against him. This, they assert, does not provide the public or the media with the ability to verify or in any way confirm the case against the supervisor. While acknowledging that a case against the supervisor and perhaps even an overwhelming one might be contained within the 4,000 pages of exhibits and 57 hours of transcribed interviews with witnesses interviewed by investigators, the Administrative Investigations Board report had not been released, leaving the validity of the conclusion Obernolte and Bost had reached in question if not in doubt, they said.
The Sentinel wrote to Obernolte’s office, asking if it would arrange for the report to be released.
The Sentinel asked, if releasing the report is not possible, whether Obernolte’s office could identify the supervisor at the Loma Linda Veterans Administration Hospital who is the subject of that report so the Sentinel could offer him an opportunity to respond to the aspersions that have been lodged against him.
The Sentinel asked, if neither releasing the report nor identifying the supervisor by name is possible, if Congressman Obernolte could put into his own words an explanation of why, in this particular case, he felt that siding with the American Federation of Government Employees over management was justified.
Obernolte’s public spokeswoman, Emily Carlin, told the Sentinel that the interpretation that Obernolte was siding with the American Federation of Government Employees over management was a misreading of the circumstance and that Obernolte and Bost were essentially pushing for the bipartisan Veterans Administration Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, which was signed into law in 2017, during the administration of President Donald Trump. According to Carlin, the Loma Linda Vdministration  Medical Center supervisor in question qualifies to be disciplined under the act, but because the Biden administration is not making use of the act, he is avoiding being held to account.
She emphasized statements made by Obernolte and Bost that accompanied the public release of the letter.
“America’s veterans have dedicated their lives to our country and protecting the freedoms we hold dear,” according to Obernolte. “In return, our nation has promised to deliver the best possible care to them when they leave our armed forces. A Department of Veterans Affairs that is unable to maintain a productive work environment for its employees is a VA that is unable to deliver on that promise. The VA’s failure to terminate an employee with a long and troubled record of creating a hostile work environment for subordinates has led to the loss of numerous good employees. Furthermore, this culture is hindering the department’s ability to provide the quality services America’s veterans deserve at VA Loma Linda. It is critical that the bureaucratic red tape that kept this supervisor in place is removed and that the Department of Veterans Affairs take immediate action to revise their procedures to ensure the immediate removal of problematic employees in the future.”
“The purpose of the bipartisan Accountability Act is to give the VA secretary the tools to ensure that the VA workforce is the best, and that employee misconduct and poor performance are a thing of the past,” said Bost. “Yet, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs continues to hear reports that this is not the case, most recently at the Loma Linda VA Medical Center where a toxic supervisor continues to be employed following multiple investigations over three years into his misconduct and recommendations that he be removed. As chairman, that is unacceptable to me, which is why I’m proud to lead this letter demanding answers from the Biden administration with my friend from California, Representative Obernolte.”
Local Republicans nonetheless, while acknowledging that Obernolte and Bost are taking action against a supervisor employed by the Veterans Administration now overseen by the Democratic Biden Administration, noted that the employee in question once was part of an operation then overseen by the Republican Trump Administration. They said regardless of which party the occupant of the White House is affiliated with, Obernolte and Bost carrying a brief for the American Federation of Government Employees is unseemly.
-Mark Gutglueck

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