WASHINGTON — A key executive in the wait list scandal at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care System claims he’s been held on paid administrative leave for 19 months because the VA lacks evidence to fire him.
Lance Robinson, the assistant director at the Phoenix VA, was placed on leave May 30, 2014, after the VA office of inspector general found he was accountable for a scheme to cook the books at the facility to cover up dangerously long patient wait times.
Robinson was suspended with pay for failure to provide oversight while patient appointment requests were either hidden or destroyed. Another VA investigative body, the Office of Accountability Review, later found Robinson had retaliated against one of the whistleblowers.
Robinson’s attorneys, in a Dec. 28 letter to Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee chairman, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., the committee’s ranking member, disputed the VA’s stated reasons for disciplinary delays and cited external reviews that they say cleared their client of any wrongdoing.
“The fact that the VA has not actually terminated Mr. Robinson is its own admission that he did nothing wrong,” Robinson’s lawyer, Julia Perkins of Shaw, Bransford and Roth, said in a statement.
“They don’t know what to do with him,” she told Stars and Stripes. “They aren’t willing to admit they were wrong because it is too high profile.”
When the scandal erupted in May 2014, the VA office of inspector general found that more than 1,700 patients were languishing without care because their names were left off the electronic wait list for appointments. The scandal wrought havoc at the VA, cascading into revelations of cover-ups of months-long patient wait times nationwide and leading to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
Robinson’s statement is the latest in a series of contradictory accounts that have emerged since the scandal erupted, leading to an ever-murkier public understanding of the case and who should be held accountable.
One official with the House Veterans Affairs Committee said the VA’s “outright foot-dragging” of disciplinary cases created an environment rife with conflicting accounts. He agreed with Robinson’s attorney that the only way to get to the truth is for the VA to move forward with its cases against Robinson and another VA official, Health Administration Service Chief Brad Curry, who also remains on paid administrative leave.
Keeping them on indefinite paid leave is unfair to them and a waste of taxpayer dollars, he added.
The VA responded to questions about Robinson’s letter only in general terms.
“Where issues require additional review and accountability actions, VA will act as necessary and pursue them and afford all concerned appropriate due process,” said a statement from the VA spokesman’s office. “Caring for our nation’s Veterans is the highest honor and privilege for the men and women who serve them at VA. Our mission is to provide timely access to earned health care and benefits for millions of Veterans. That is a responsibility that we do not take lightly.”
A spokeswoman for the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee said it has received Robinson’s letter and would review it before commenting.
In testimony before the Senate committee on Dec. 14., VA Under Secretary for Health David Shulkin stated the delays in disciplinary cases at the Phoenix VA were due to an ongoing criminal probe by the U.S. attorney that was preventing interviews of key witnesses.
Robinson’s lawyers countered in their letter that the U.S. Attorney’s Office informed him in April that it would not prosecute him. They also noted he’s been interviewed repeatedly by VA investigators.
“The VA has spent the last year and a half squandering taxpayer dollars on repeated internal investigations into the same unfounded allegations in an attempt to substantiate a baseless removal action,” Perkins said in her statement. “All this while, Mr. Robinson has been patiently waiting for the truth to come out. But after hearing yet another VA official give inaccurate and misleading information to Congress and to the public about him, Mr. Robinson couldn’t stay quiet any longer.”
In their letter to the senate committee, Robinson’s attorneys laid out some of the many contradictions in the case. It cited an appeal decision by the Merit Systems Protection Board in the case of Robinson’s boss, Sharon Helman, the director of the VA Health Care System in Phoenix.
Helman had been fired in November 2014 for failure to provide oversight, whistleblower retaliation and receiving in appropriate gifts. In her appeal, the adjudicative judge found that the VA had failed to prove that Helman could be held accountable for the wait list tampering or the whistleblower retaliation and Robinson’s lawyers believe this exonerates him as well. The judge upheld charges that Helman took inappropriate gifts.
That judge also found that Robinson’s disciplinary actions against whistleblower Paula Pedene, a public affairs officer who was relegated to a basement job for violating computer security regulations, were not retaliatory -- contradicting findings by the Office of Accountability Review that Robinson had retaliated against Pedene.
But the MSPB report also was fraught with inconsistencies. It stated Robinson claimed the office of inspector general agent on the case, Richard Cady, had directed him to move Pedene to a different job. But Cady, in a written statement presented to the appeals board, said he never directed Robinson to move Pedene.
The judge drew the conclusion that Cady must have requested rather than ordered Robinson to reassign her. A further conclusion: Robinson would have reassigned Pedene regardless of her actions as a whistleblower.
Yet that conclusion also contradicts the findings of the Office of Special Counsel – a federal investigative and prosecutorial agency created to protect whistleblowers and other vulnerable federal workers – which took on the cases of three Phoenix whistleblowers, finding their retaliation concerns legitimate.
In September 2014, the OSC announced it had obtained confidential settlements for the Phoenix whistleblowers: Katherine Mitchell, and emergency room doctor who blew the whistle on understaffing and poor triage training in the facility’s emergency room; Pedene, who reported concerns about financial mismanagement, and Damian Reese, a program analyst who exposed the long patient wait times and the manipulation of patient records and data.
The OSC welcomed the VA’s clear message that “whistleblowing should be encouraged, not punished.”
With so much conflicting information, Robinson’s lawyers argue the only way to get to the truth is let the cases of Robinson and Curry go forward.