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  1. Military

VA benefits director fires back at union over 'no confidence' vote

Published Nov. 13, 2014

A week after a "no confidence" vote by an employee union, the chief of the Department of Veterans Affairs regional benefits office at Bay Pines says she wants to win back the confidence of any employees who doubt her leadership.

But director Kerrie Witty's response to the Nov. 5 vote may have further enraged the union leaders she was trying to mollify.

Witty sent by email Wednesday a statement to Local 1594 of the American Federation of Government Employees saying she would "take appropriate actions to gain back that confidence." Witty then launched an attack on the union, saying it communicated the vote to her in an "unprofessional and disrespectful manner."

The union said it voted no confidence in Witty earlier this month, accusing her of a hostile relationship with the union and failing to address numerous issues. Those include allegations of retaliation against union officials, not responding to employee grievances and failing to fix flaws in the system to identify errors in veteran disability claims.

Witty said the union criticisms are far off target. She accused union leaders of failing to work with her to resolve differences and said they rebuffed efforts at mediation.

"Did you know that on two occasions in the last two weeks I sat in a room waiting for AFGE to show up for a meeting we had scheduled ... but nobody came?" said Witty, who heads an office, near Seminole, that handles more veterans disability claims than any other in the VA.

"The purpose of my email is not to disparage AFGE but rather to demonstrate my attempts and willingness to work with you on behalf" of employees "so that we can best serve our veterans," Witty wrote. "Our employees and veterans deserve better than this and I am here to work with AFGE on behalf of them."

Witty did not elaborate on why she thought communication of the no confidence vote was unprofessional, though the letter sent to her by the union detailing the vote was blunt and contained harsh criticism.

Valorie Reilly, Local 1594 president, could not be reached for comment Thursday. But Reilly disputed Witty in an email response sent to the director, accusing her of scheduling meetings with union officials when she knew they were on leave.

"Action is needed, not more of the same," Reilly wrote. "Remember, we're interested in deeds, not words."

Witty's bosses in Washington, D.C., said they have "complete confidence" in her leadership and said her office has reduced a backlog of claims while making fewer errors.

In an email to the Tampa Bay Times, Witty Thursday said she was "disappointed" the newspaper first published an article about the no confidence vote on Veterans Day. Witty said an article on any topic other than one that honored veterans was inappropriate on such a holiday.

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"The employees of this regional office work very hard for veterans and did not deserve an article that implied otherwise," Witty said.

Contact William R. Levesque at (813) 226-3432 or levesque@tampabay.com.

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