An appeals board has backed the firing of Sharon Helman as director of the VA medical center in Phoenix, Arizona, but not because it connected her to long patient wait-times and manipulated data at the hospital.
Instead the appeals board supported the firing because she accepted gifts from contractors.
Helman was fired in November, seven months after being placed on administrative leave amid whistleblower allegations that up to 40 veterans died while awaiting an appointment. It was also alleged that she had retaliated against employees who tried to focus attention on problems at the hospital. However, the U.S. Merit System Protection Board, who reviewed her firing, said they found no evidence of that.
Chief Administrative Judge Stephen C. Mish said the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board is satisfied with VA evidence that Helman accepted multiple airline and concert tickets. Helman accepted tickets for a Beyonce concert, Chang's Rock & Roll Arizona Marathon, the Mississippi Blues Marathon and an eight-night stay at Disney World from a consultant to a healthcare provider looking to do business with the VA facility, according to evidence.
Mish said in his ruling that the VA failed to make its case that Helman was directly responsible for the wait-times scandal that rocked an already troubled agency starting in April, or that she ordered the reassignments of medical staff that previously tried to report problems with the facility.
Though the VA was able to show that patient data and appointments were being manipulated and standards were not being met, it could not demonstrate that Helman directed any of the wrongful actions. Mish also said VA could not show that Helman had a role in reassigning staff that raised concerns about hospital operations.
This included Dr. Katherine Mitchell, director of the emergency department, who had advised Helman in early 2012 that the department was so understaffed and dangerous that it needed to be shut down.
Mitchell reportedly continued to raise concerns and in December 2012 she was reassigned to another department.
She later wrote out her allegations in a letter to Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona.
Mish dismissed Helman's argument that her firing was in part owed to media reports and demands by lawmakers that she be fired.
"The press and Congressional attention has been on the charges the [VA] has failed to prove," he wrote.
Mish rejected Helman's claim that she forgot about accepting airline tickets.
"I conclude that [Helman's] misconduct ... was not inadvertent," Mish said. "Sincerely forgetting about one of the plane rides purchased for her might be understandable in some circumstances, but the notion she actually forgot them all strains credulity."
"Moreover, accepting gifts such as tickets to a popular performer's concert from a person who represents companies seeking to do business with the agency was, more probably than not, not an accident or mistake."
Mish concluded that Helman's offenses were serious and not an accident or mistake. He said she would have to have known from filling out and signing an Office of Government Ethics form that accepting such gifts would constitute "actionable misconduct."
The lavish gifts, totaling thousands of dollars in all, were provided to Helman by Dennis "Max" Lewis, vice president of Jefferson Consulting Group, a consultant for a healthcare company wanting to do business with the VA facilities' community-based outpatient clinics.
The air travel she accepted included flights between Phoenix and several states – as well as a 2012 trip to Vancouver, British Columbia – for concerts or other events. The family trip to Disneyland cost $11,000, according to the ruling.
"You knew or should have known that the acceptance of these gifts creates the appearance of a conflict of interest," Mish wrote.
Mish also rejected the idea that Helman could return to VA employment.
"I conclude [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 that the agency has been looking into her private life."
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org