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Arizona VA boss accused of covering up veterans' deaths linked to previous scandal

A Veterans Affairs official accused of keeping double books to hide the fact that dozens of veterans died awaiting care previously ran a Washington state VA facility that allegedly fudged suicide numbers, FoxNews.com has learned.

Sharon Helman, director of the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care system, is accused with other management officials of keeping a fake waiting list that made it appear sick veterans were being treated in a timely manner -- while hiding the real list that showed up to 1,600 sick veterans were waiting months to see a physician. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said investigators have evidence that two sets of records were kept by the facility to conceal the lengthy delays in care. 

At least 40 veterans on the secret list allegedly died while waiting for appointments, prompting congressional committees to launch investigations into the circumstances surrounding the deaths.

Helman, who is said to have approved and defended the Phoenix facility's actions, previously served as director of the Veterans Affairs facility in Spokane, Wash., where the VA's Office of Medical Investigations found the number of veteran suicides were being miscounted.

"Leadership, management and accountability is all we have ever required of the VA."

- William Thien, Vietnam veteran and leader of 1.9 million-member VFW

From July 2007 through the first week of July 2008, at least 22 veterans in the Spokane VA service area committed suicide. During that same time period, however, Spokane VA reported nine suicides and 34 attempted suicides, according to Military.com and other media outlets. 

Helman was director of the Spokane facility at the time the number of suicides were being misreported. Shortly after news revealed that such data had been falsified, Helman was transferred to the VA facility in Hines, Ill., after having spent less than two years in Spokane. From there, Helman moved to Phoenix, where she became director of the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care system in February 2012.

Helman could not be reached for comment, but the Arizona Republic reported earlier this week that Helman denies knowledge of any patients who died awaiting care or that patient information was improperly manipulated.

In a statement to FoxNews.com, VA spokeswoman Jean Schaefer said the agency has asked for an independent review regarding the claims in Arizona.

“The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) cares deeply for every veteran we are privileged to serve, and we are committed to delivering the highest quality care," Schaefer said. "The Phoenix VA Health Care system takes these issues very seriously and invited the independent VA Office of the Inspector General to complete a comprehensive review of these allegations."

But veterans advocates said Helman's transfers are part of the government agency's pattern of shuffling officials around instead of holding them accountable. 

"This is not the first time that Sharon Helman has been involved in an incident involving manipulation of patient data," said Pete Hegseth, chief executive officer for Concerned Veterans for America. "She fudged the number of veterans suicides at a previous job — and was never fired. She just moved."

Public records show that Helman received a $9,345 bonus last year, in addition to her annual base salary of $169,900.

"Leadership, management and accountability is all we have ever required of the VA," William A. Thien, a Vietnam veteran from Georgetown, Ind., who leads the 1.9 million-member VFW and its auxiliaries, said in a statement Thursday. 

"When you deal with lives, there should be no leniency granted to anyone with any knowledge of this alleged coverup, to include everyone in Phoenix who knew but didn’t tell, and those in oversight positions at the VA network and VA headquarters in Washington who knew but didn’t care," Thien said.

FoxNews.com's Cristina Corbin contributed to this report.