Union leaders are calling for a full investigation into a senior Department of Veterans Affairs official who displayed a picture of the first Ku Klux Klan figurehead in his office, and say VA leadership is ignoring the issue.
The photo belongs to David Thomas Sr., deputy executive director of VA's Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization, which certifies veteran-owned businesses seeking government contracts. The painting depicted Nathan Bedford Forrest, a confederate general who became the KKK's first grand wizard in 1868.
Thomas claims he did not know Forrest's background before a Washington Post reporter pointed it out to him. He says he has now removed the painting following a Washington Post report.
"It was just a beautiful print that I had purchased, and I thought it was very nice." Thomas said of the picture. He says he only knew of Forrest "as a southern general in the Civil War."
Employees in Thomas' office circulated a petition asking for removal of the photo prior to the news story, and complained about Thomas displaying the painting in previous offices before his promotion to the deputy executive director role.
Nine out of 14 managers under Thomas at the VA are black, and a few have "pending claims of racial discrimination" against him, according to the Washington Post.
The American Federation of Government Employees national president, J. David Cox Sr., said of the matter, "The prominent display of images of Confederate leaders in the workplace is never acceptable. The actions of this official cross the line, and we’re calling on the VA to get to the bottom of what’s going on within their leadership at this facility.”
AFGE has also requested additional information from the department on the office's morale and disciplinary actions.
Curt Cashour, VA spokesman, said he did not receive complaints about the portrait prior to the news story and said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie has taken steps to make sure the VA maintains a welcoming environment for all employees. Cashour noted, however, that "achieving the secretary's goal relies in large part on individual judgment and common sense of employees at all levels."
"This is about more than one portrait — this is about ensuring all employees can work free from discrimination and intimidation," said Jeremy Lannan, head of AFGE's civil rights department. "We have serious questions as to whether that’s possible under Mr. Thomas’ leadership.”
The union has been critical of President Trump and VA management as they oppose moves to more easily fire civil employees and limit union leaders work on behalf of members during work hours.