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INTERACTIVE: Take A Ride On VA’s Bad-Bosses Merry-Go-Round

Department of Veterans Affairs leaders have shuffled nearly 100 hospital administrators to three or more states each in the last eight years, often to deal with underperforming directors whom they could not fire, according to a Daily Caller News Foundation analysis.

The list of VA employees with unusual workplace moving patterns includes infamous names like Diana Rubens, who was a D.C. based administrator until she created a job for herself with less work and the same $181,000 salary near her family in Philadelphia. Then she billed VA for nearly $300,000 in relocation costs.

It also provides a roadmap for a costly trail of chaos left by less well-known VA hospital executives on a management merry-go-round that continually shifts poor performers and problem employees to different jobs and locations in the hope of getting different outcomes.

Looking at directors’ past inability to hold a job for long might have even been an indicator of the system’s deadliest scandal, wait-time manipulation in Phoenix. When she arrived there in 2012, its now-fired director, Sharon Helman, had worked at VA facilities in four cities in five years. The Phoenix second-in-command had worked in three.

For an illustration of how VA recycles problem managers, consider Shirley Bealer. She was acting director of the Central Alabama VA hospital in 2008 when the department’s ethics watchdog determined that she “interfered with our investigation” into abuses by Robert Ratliff, the hospital’s permanent director. Because he was under investigation for his actions at Central, the VA had made Ratliff “interim director” of a neighboring hospital, leading to Bealer’s promotion.

It’s not surprising that Bealer disappeared from Alabama soon after she was faulted for “grossly inappropriate” obstruction of a misconduct investigation. But she wasn’t gone from VA. A sunny news brief on a local news website in Shreveport, Louisiana, in 2011 noted that the city’s problem-plagued VA hospital was turning over a new leaf with the infusion of some fresh blood at the top: Shirley Bealer.

(Story continues after interactive graphic. Explore VA’s re-treads below:)

Like a troubled high schooler who transfers to a different school, the new kids knew nothing of Bealer’s past. “She comes highly recommended by other VA officials,” the news brief assured.

The Louisiana move wasn’t even Bealer’s first after Alabama. Shortly after she was found to have obstructed an investigation, she was moved to a Texas VA hospital where she lasted two years.

And on it goes. After she left Central Alabama, her old position was filled by James Talton, but he was fired in 2014 – a move that came under congressional pressure and only after Congress authorized slightly increased VA termination powers. His firing was for failing to take action when an employee of the hospital’s drug rehab program stole a patient’s money and drove him to a crack house.

Robin Jackson – a VA regional office administrator who had only days of previous experience in hospital administration – then became interim director. The regional office provides oversight of hospitals in the southeast and coordinated the director appointments.

Leslie Wiggins was appointed last month to lead that regional office. It’s her fourth location around the country since 2007, and she was promoted after running the Atlanta hospital, where three patients died due to mismanagement. Wiggins, however, insisted that “I cannot say that I think anyone should be fired.”

The job swaps often appear to result from VA’s admitted inability to fire bad managers because of civil service protections. Some were motivated to move by lucrative relocation bonuses, which can increase salaries by 25 percent for four years.

Others were merely pursuing promotions to larger, more complex hospitals, and did nothing wrong themselves. They stepped into jobs that frequently became open because of missteps by predecessors who were being moved elsewhere, again.

Whatever the reasons, Secretary Bob McDonald, who promised a transformation of the VA when he took over in 2014, is trying to fix past mistakes by moving around the same people who oversaw them, not bringing in new leaders.

The accompanying map shows only top-level hospital administrators. Add doctors and pharmacists, who are also sometimes moved after licensing or discipline issues, and slightly lower ranking bureaucrats, and the list grows to 600 VA employees who worked in three or more areas of the country in eight years, TheDCNF’s computer analysis showed.

TheDCNF has found evidence tying nearly half of the administrators on the map to some kind of scandal or controversy.

For example, Dewayne Hamlin worked in Florida, Idaho, Kentucky and Puerto Rico over a six-year period.  He was arrested in Florida for drunk driving at 2am and found with pain pills like those provided to patients in his VA hospital, but refused to say where he got them.

After being transferred to Puerto Rico, Hamlin turned up missing from the hospital for 80 days a year. Japhet Rivera, one of Hamlin’s subordinates, turned him in for wrongfully billing personal expenses to the taxpayers.

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In retaliation, Hamlin had his former colleagues from the Florida-based regional office transfer Rivera to Florida against his will for a make-work job, with VA putting him up in a hotel, Rivera said. After that temporary assignment, he was stowed away to Kansas–bosses may have figured he’d quit rather than leave the tropics–then wound up running a VA hospital in Illinois when they needed someone to fill a job.

There, he was paid six figures to resign after the department confirmed that he himself retaliated against a whistleblower in that state.

Meanwhile, when a hospital in Florida needed a new director, the regional administrative office that oversees such appointments also had no permanent director, and bosses of hospitals in the region, such as Hamlin, were tasked with selecting their new peer. (The regional office is still without a permanent director, but last month Paul Bockelman arrived as its new acting head. Bockelman has worked in five states since 2007: Iowa, South Dakota, Illinois, Michigan, and now Florida.)

They chose Joe Battle, who was fleeing a Mississippi hospital after the Office of Special Counsel concluded that Battle had forced doctors to sign papers approving patients being seen by nurses, even when doctors were necessary, and then lying about the extent of problems. The Florida hospital was Battle’s third VA hospital in recent years, and sixth in his career.

And so on and on and on.

Scroll the blue-and-red list above for the list of frequently-moving VA execs. Are you familiar with the backstory behind any of their moves? Send tips to [email protected].

Jeremy Beale contributed reporting to this story.

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