The government agency charged with making sure federal employees are treated fairly upheld this week the Department of Veterans Affairs decision to “formally remove” Sharon Helman, director of the Phoenix Department of Veterans Affairs’ Health Care System and the leader at the center of the biggest scandal in the agency’s history.
But the ruling by the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) could not substantiate that Helman knew or should have known that employees at her hospital lied about health-care wait times for former troops seeking treatment for everything from cancer to post-traumatic stress disorder.
Instead, as the basis for upholding her removal, the judge named other charges against her by the VA, which said she accepted “inappropriate gifts,” such as a trip to Disneyland “in excess of $11,000 for what appears to be six of her family members for an 8-night stay,” and $729.50 for five tickets last year and parking to a Beyonce concert on Aug. 24, 2013.
The ruling finds she accepted a total of nine gifts offered by a consultant whose “very business is to assist its clients in securing favorable government contracts, particularly with the Department of Veterans Affairs, including five airline tickets between Phoenix and El Paso, Texas, Portland and Vancouver and entry fees for the Mississippi Blues marathon, according to the ruling.
The gifts were given to her by Dennis “Max” Lewis, vice president of the Jefferson Consulting group, who “was seeking to do business” with one or more VA outpatient clinics under her management, the MSPB ruling says. The agency said the 61-page report speaks for itself and could not comment further.
Helman became a symbol of the VA’s failure to provide medical care for veterans, and veterans groups often complained about the fact that the agency took seven months to investigate the charges while she was placed on administrative leave and still received her $170,000 annual salary.
Garry Augustine, executive director of the Washington headquarters of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), said her removal was akin to getting Al Capone for tax evasion.
“Let’s take the example of Al Capone. The bottom line is, she is gone. We got her,” he said.
In the ruling, Chief Administrative Judge Stephen Mish rejected the VA’s other charges, which said that Helman failed to see that veterans were waiting months or even years to get health care. But the judge said the VA failed to demonstrate any actions or inactions on the part of Helman that caused it.
“To phrase it more colloquially, an agency must connect the dots of fault from the identified failure by the subordinates back up the line to the manager,” the judge wrote. “The agency did not attempt to do so here. Accordingly, this specification is not sustained.”
Similarly, the VA said Helman failed to process 2,500 new claims that were found, which led hundreds of veterans to be without health care for more than a year. But the judge again said the VA did not provide enough information to the board.
The ruling also points out that linking Helman’s removal to the wait-times issue is complex. The report notes that the VA’s office of the inspector general did not interview Helman about wait times during their investigation into the issue.
The IG’s office had no comment on the issue.
The ruling comes after complaints from a growing chorus of Republicans who said the VA was not acting quickly enough to discipline officials responsible for the wrongdoing, despite legislation this summer to expedite the process for firing VA senior executives.
Under the new law passed after the scandal, an executive who is removed has seven days from the effective date of the removal to file an appeal with the Merit Systems Protection Board. The board must issue a decision within 21 days after the appeal is filed.
In the Helman ruling, the judge also indicated that the law only gives the board a few weeks to do “what normally requires several weeks or more to do correctly,” and that expectation is “simply not realistic.”
The decision raises questions about whether the law Congress passed will be effective in allowing the VA to fire officials involved in the scandal.
Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), who heads the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said that this issue is something “our committee will study in detail next Congress in order to help maximize the department’s ability to get rid of corrupt and reckless managers in the future.”
“While I am glad the MSPB upheld Sharon Helman’s firing, the fact that the ruling did not connect the central figure of VA’s wait time scandal to any wait time schemes demonstrates a huge problem with the way this case was handled,” he said in an e-mailed statement. “Additionally, this decision highlights how there are many other Phoenix VAMC employees who have contributed to the facility’s problems. It’s absolutely critical that VA take steps to ensure these individuals are held accountable as soon as possible to the maximum extent under the law.”
Finally, the judge’s contention, he said, that “at least some senior agency leaders were aware, or should have been, of [nationwide scheduling] problems underscores the need for a detailed investigation into whether VA officials in Washington knew about widespread wait time fraud and when they knew it. VA leaders owe it to our veterans and America’s taxpayers to seek answers to these unknowns.”
The VA released an e-mailed statement that said: “We are making progress in improving access to care at Phoenix and VA facilities nationwide, and we are pleased that MSPB’s decision today helps us begin to put the leadership failures at Phoenix behind us.”
The law firm of Shaw Bransford & Roth P.C., which represented Helman, released a statement on Wednesday, saying that the ruling shows that the VA couldn’t prove Helman manipulated wait-time data.
“The VA never asked or instructed Ms. Helman to sit for any interview regarding any of those public allegations,” the emailed statement said.
“But the MPSB’s decision sets the story straight. Sharon Helman did not kill veterans. Sharon Helman did not manipulate wait time data. The VA’s preferred storyline has been proven a fabrication, of which the VA was aware the entire time.”
The nationwide scandal cost the former VA secretary Eric Shinseki, a respected general with a long service record, his job. He was replaced by Robert “Bob” McDonald, who has vowed to refocus care on veterans and end the culture of lying about wait times.
On the eve of Veterans Day, McDonald announced what he called the “biggest reorganization in the agency’s history,” and said he is considering disciplinary action for as many as 1,000 employees.
But he added that he needed to move carefully and make sure their actions “stick” so that employees cannot challenge the punishment.
The MSPB judge said that Helman argued against all of the VA’s claims against her, even on the issue of accepting the gifts. But he said he strongly disagreed with her on that charge, and said in his opinion it was not worth reinstating her at the VA because “she has little rehabilitative potential,” he wrote.
“She has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing in the course of this appeal and attempted to deflect attention from her own actions by pointing to political considerations and complaining the agency has been looking into her private life,” he wrote in the ruling.