“In the scheme of things, this was not in good taste,” Jean Schaefer, spokeswoman for the Phoenix VA, said Wednesday of Jeremy Pottle, who came to work on Oct. 30 wearing a blond wig with blond ponytail, fake beard and fake U.S. Marine Corps tattoos, a cane and a pillow under his shirt to make it look like he had a pot belly, according to witnesses.
“Employees and supervisors have a responsibility to make sure that when people come to work, they’re dressed appropriately,” Schaefer said, acknowledging that the Phoenix facility “has been under a microscope for a few years.”
“We are conducting a fact-finding investigation,” she said. “If the investigation supports it, corrective actions will be taken.” Pottle has apologized to his colleague, Brandon Coleman, and to his supervisors, saying he meant no harm.
The prank was especially sensitive because Coleman has been fighting to keep suicidal veterans from killing themselves. An 81mm mortar man with 1st Marines out of Camp Pendleton, Calif., Coleman was one of the VA employees who last year exposed long wait times that were manipulated by scheduling staffers to make it appear that veterans were receiving care faster than they were.
After his disclosures, Coleman, an addiction therapist as well who walks with a cane because of a foot injury that required nine surgeries, himself was placed on paid leave, where he has been for 10 months. He says he is working with the Office of Special Counsel on a return to work outside of the Phoenix VA main hospital, “allowing me to get back to helping veterans get clean and sober.”
“This act of retaliation and further intimidation lets any employee who may be thinking of coming forward as a whistle blower know that you will be retaliated against and we may dress up as you and make fun of you on Halloween, even if you are a disabled Veteran,” Coleman wrote in an e-mail to VA Secretary Robert McDonald after learning of the Halloween prank.
“If the leaders at the Phoenix VA can’t even get employees to treat their fellow coworkers with respect and dignity, how can we expect them to give proper care to our veterans,” he wrote.
Pottle, who runs therapy groups for veterans with substance abuse issues, has apologized in e-mails to Coleman and to his supervisors at the Phoenix VA. The e-mails were provided the Post by employees.
Pottle told KPHO-TV in Phoenix that he meant no harm and dresses up as a different colleague for Halloween every year.
“I was a little surprised he was offended, but if he’s offended then it’s not funny. I had no ill intent,” Pottle said.
“I hope this apology means something,” he added.