VA's own internal probe finds impunity of agency leaders at scandal-ridden hospital

By LISA REIN | The Washington Post | Published: December 16, 2015

WASHINGTON — Investigators at the Department of Veterans Affairs found that two senior managers retaliated against whistleblowers who reported dangers to patient care and financial mismanagement at the Phoenix hospital at the center of a nationwide scandal over falsified waiting lists.

But 15 months after the internal probes were finished and sent to Secretary Robert McDonald recommending that the managers be disciplined or fired, VA has done neither - keeping one official on paid leave at home and leaving the other on the job.

Darren Deering, a physician who is chief of staff at Phoenix VA Health Care System, was scheduled to testify Monday at a Senate field hearing in Gilbert, Ariz., but his appearance was hastily canceled after lawmakers learned of the probe, which has not been made public. The Washington Post obtained a copy.

The lengthy, detailed investigations of Deering and Lance Robinson, the hospital's associate director, provide a window onto an issue that's only starting to get the attention of senior leaders in government: Supervisors who punish whistleblowers for reporting wrongdoing rarely are punished themselves.

At VA, members of Congress in both parties have begun clamoring for more accountability for retaliators after last year's coverup of long wait times for veterans needing medical care, which was brought to light by  whistleblowers.

In the case of Deering and Robinson, an internal team created after the scandal called the Office of Accountability Review found that they moved to sideline and ostracize the emergency room director in Phoenix and banish a public affairs officer to a basement after both made disclosures that were protected by law.

VA, under pressure from the federal agency that represents whistleblowers, reached confidential settlements with Katherine Mitchell and Paula Pedene last year for the harassment they suffered. But the agency has not moved to punish the top brass who caused it.

After Mitchell blew the whistle on critical understaffing, poor patient care, mismanagement of patient wait lists, nursing errors and inadequate training in the Phoenix hospital's emergency room, Deering placed her on administrative leave and demoted her from her post as head of the emergency room, according to the report. Her previously stellar performance ratings plummeted.

"Dr. Deering acknowledged that his decision to reassign Dr. Mitchell was based, at least in part on his desire to remove her from the 'malignant situation' in the [emergency department]," the report said. ". . . the unavoidable fact is that the 'malignant situation' developed as a result of Dr. Mitchell's disclosures. Rather than seeking to improve the ED environment by addressing [her] concerns, Dr. Deering chose to involuntarily reassign her."

The report, issued in September 2014, recommended that "appropriate administrative action should be initiated" for Deering and others who retaliated. It also said supervisors and managers should receive training in whistleblower protection.

The review panel's investigation of Robinson also substantiated that he retaliated against Pedene, the public affairs officer in Phoenix. Pedene, who is legally blind, made numerous disclosures beginning in 2010 about financial mismanagement at the medical center. VA's inspector general substantiated many of them the following year.

But then her bosses, Robinson chief among them, took away her job duties and banished her to work in a basement library.

In its report on Oct. 30, 2014, the review panel recommended "appropriate administrative action" against Robinson and then-hospital chief Sharon Helman, who was fired for other misconduct the following month. Robinson has been on administrative leave based on allegations of misconduct since May 2014, receiving full pay, benefits, vacation and credit toward his pension.

Robinson did not respond to a phone message left Tuesday with a family member. Deering did not respond to a request for comment left through a VA official.

VA officials have said they are hamstrung by criminal investigators looking into broader misconduct in the wait-times scandal in both cases, and have been barred from interviewing the managers. But Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson told House lawmakers last week that the agency is moving forward and "wrapping up" Robinson's case.

"We've waited too long, and we're not going to do it again," Gibson said of the agency's delays in disciplinary action against wrongdoers in general.

VA spokeswoman Victoria Dillon said in an email of Deering that the agency "is not able to disclose the specifics of the internal report at this time and information on Dr. Darren Deering, Chief of Staff, Phoenix VA Healthcare System, and whether he retaliated against a VA employee due to pending investigation."

The long inaction is drawing sharp criticism from Arizona's U.S. senators, who wrote a letter to McDonald Monday urging him to fire Deering "to continue restoring the trust that was broken at the Phoenix VA Health Care System and to demonstrate that retaliation against whistleblowers at the VA will not be tolerated."