PITTSBURGH — Three days after the U.S. Veterans Affairs inspector general issued a review that found systemic failures at the Pittsburgh VA led to a recent Legionnaires' outbreak that killed at least five veterans, the man who oversees the Pittsburgh system was in Washington, D.C., receiving the government's highest career award for civil servants that included a $62,895 bonus.
VA regional director Michael Moreland received the Presidential Distinguished Rank Award, which is ultimately approved by the White House, at a black tie banquet Friday.
That confluence of events has members of Congress, VA employees and families of the Legionnaires' victims furious that VA Secretary Eric Shinseki — who nominated Mr. Moreland — allowed him to receive the award even though many people believe he deserves at least some of the blame for the outbreak since it occurred under his watch as regional director.
Many believe Mr. Moreland played a more direct role by closing the Special Pathogens Laboratory — which oversaw Legionella control and prevention — and firing and forcing out Legionnaires' experts Victor Yu and Janet Stout, when he was director of the Pittsburgh VA in 2006.
"Are you kidding me?" said Judy Nicklas, daughter-in-law of William Nicklas, 87, of Hampton, who died in November after contracting Legionnaires'. "Unbelievable."
Ward Morrow, assistant general counsel to the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents Pittsburgh VA employees, said, "Saying I'm shocked is an understatement."
U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, said the timing could not have been worse "coming on the heels of an inspector general report finding serious problems at the veterans' hospital under [Mr. Moreland's] watch, and an ongoing criminal investigation looking into problems that occurred under his watch."
To some, the award explains why the outbreak dragged on for two years in 2011 and 2012.
"I'll bet the reason they managed to keep it quiet through most of 2012 is because he thinks he's going to get the highest civil award and the bonus," said Maureen Ciarolla, daughter of John Ciarolla, 83, of North Versailles, who was the first veteran to die during the outbreak. "Now it all makes sense."
The Pittsburgh VA first publicly revealed it had an outbreak on Nov. 16, 2012, even though officials, including Mr. Moreland, knew they had a serious problem as early as July 2011, when Mr. Ciarolla died.
The Distinguished Rank Award is a career service-based award given to less than 1 percent of the federal government's senior executives by every president since 1978. Fifty-four executives got it this year.
Nominations for this year's award were due in March 2012, and, after a review by a committee and staff, the list was given to the White House in September.
The White House finalized its list about November, and revealed the winners in January 2013, said Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, the private organization that throws the annual banquet for the winners.
The award includes a certificate signed by President Barack Obama, who did not attend the banquet, as well as a gold pin, and a bonus equal to 35 percent of the awardee's annual salary. For Mr. Moreland's $179,700 salary, that means he will get $62,895.
An Obama administration official said they "consulted with appropriate department VA officials, including former supervisors, professional colleagues and the office of inspector general to verify Michael Moreland's qualifications and record."
Part of the award's guidelines allows the nominee's agency head — in this case Mr. Shinseki — to withdraw the nominee any time before the president approves the award.
"Situations that could cause a withdrawal of the nomination might include being the subject of an unfavorable finding in an investigation, conflict of interest, EEO complaint, or adverse legal action," the guidelines for this year's awards read in part. "We also ask agencies to consider the potential reaction of employees, customers, and other stakeholders."
Mr. Murphy said he intends to write a letter to Mr. Obama.
"It's just so incredibly insensitive to the families and victims that no one in the administration put a hold on this," he said.