Why is Phoenix VA official still employed?
In April, I wrote about the urgent need for reform at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. That call followed revelations of a nationwide patient care scandal, in which veterans were denied care while VA officials falsified wait lists and then collected generous “performance” bonuses based on the fraudulent numbers.
Exhibit A in that case was Sharon Helman, the director of the Phoenix VA, where the scandal broke. She oversaw the fraudulent scheduling scheme intended to make Phoenix VA executives look good while veterans waited and suffered.
It wasn’t the first time Helman has been at the center of a VA administrative controversy. In 2009, she was implicated in a separate falsification of records scheme in Washington state, where VA officials systematically underreported suicides of veterans.
She also has a record of punishing employees who cross her. One VA public affairs official who blew the whistle on mismanagement at the Phoenix facility soon found herself stripped of her duties and moved to a remote basement office, on Helman’s orders.
You might think Helman’s history of corruption, poor management and vindictiveness would put her out of a job. Wrong. Since I wrote about Helman’s shoddy record four months ago, she’s been placed on “administrative leave,” meaning she’s still collecting a paycheck.
For the veterans under Helman’s purview, the last four months have been a time of uncertainty and anger as they seek answers to how this scandal happened. For Helman, those same four months have been a paid vacation.
And an extremely well-paid vacation: Helman’s annual base pay of $170,000 comes out to a monthly salary of just over $14,000 a month. (This a good place to note that Helman received a reported $57,000 in bonuses in 2013, according to The Arizona Republic, bringing her total compensation last year to more than $237,000).
Let’s say this for the VA bureaucracy: Even if they’ve abandoned their mission of service to veterans, they certainly do know how to take care of their own. A May 24 CNN report included this telling detail:
The director had parked in an “emergency vehicles only” space outside the facility’s ER entrance. She left the building surrounded by armed police who held the CNN team back. She climbed into her Mercedes sports coupe and drove off without saying a word.
For veterans, it’s endless waiting and shoddy care. For VA insiders like Sharon Helman, it’s armed security protection spiriting her to her (illegally parked) German luxury car. It’s difficult to imagine a more infuriating portrait of the sense of entitlement and unearned privilege found among too many of today’s so-called “public servants.”
If Helman were a private-sector employee, she would be out of a job right now (and possibly facing criminal charges). But not as a VA executive, where she and others just like her enjoy generous job protections that until recently made them virtually impossible to fire.
While Helman is the poster child for VA dysfunction, she’s far from the only department employee who has betrayed the public trust. But given her high visibility — and the alarming fact that she’s implicated in two separate records scandals involving manipulation of data — terminating Helman’s employment would send a clear signal that the department leadership will not tolerate fraud and other forms of malfeasance.
But is new VA Secretary Bob McDonald actually going to fire Helman? So far, the signs don’t look reassuring. In recent weeks, McDonald has been evasive in discussing the firing of VA employees, instead urging “respect” for VA workers who have driven the department into a ditch and put veterans’ lives at risk and equating accountability with performance improvement through “feedback” and “training.”
If the secretary wants to send a clear signal that he is serious about imposing change on the dysfunctional bureaucracy, he should start now by ending Helman’s career in government service.
Will McDonald and the Obama administration pass this pressing accountability test? They had better. Veterans and their advocates are watching closely, and we expect results.
Pete Hegseth is the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America and a Fox News contributor. He is an infantry officer in the Army National Guard, and has served tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.