Death and corruption at the Veterans Administration

Michael Volpe Contributor
Font Size:

The Veteran Administration maintains a culture of corruption that allows managers to grievously violate rules and laws with little or no punishment.

A Veteran Affairs Inspector General report found that while Jed Fillingim was attending a professional conference in Texas, he drove a government vehicle for personal use after he and two other VA employees had consumed alcohol, and a female companion, Amy Wheat, died after she attempted to exit the vehicle while it was still moving. Local NBC Washington first broke the story last month. Still, Fillingim was hired as a financial manager for the Veteran Integrated Services Network (VISN) 7 region in Georgia in March 2011.

Fillingim was working as the assistant director of the Montgomery VA Medical Center in Jackson, Miss. at the time of the incident, in June 2, 2010. He was allowed to quietly resign in November 2010, even as a federal investigation was still ongoing, according to a VA OIG report of the incident.

American Federation of Government Employees Local 589 President Charles Jenkins, who represents 900 government employees at a number of facilities in Mississippi, strenuously objected in a series of emails to VA leadership in the summer 2011.

“Can someone explain how a VAMC employee (Jed Fillingim) can be directly involved in another VAMC employee’s death (Amy Wheat, RN) which alcohol was involved, inappropriate use of a government vehicle after business hours, leaving the scene of an accident, delay in contacting 911, and Mr. Jed Fillingim is back working for another VAMC,” American Federation of Government Employees Local 589 President Charles Jenkins wrote in an email to VA leadership June 9, 2011.

The recipients included Secretary Eric Shinseki, head of public affairs Robert Petzel, and head of human capital John Sepulveda. Jenkins’ union represents thousands of government employees at a number of facilities in Mississippi.

In those emails, Jenkins compared Fillingim’s case with that of Ben Johnson, a non-management police officer and president of the Alexandria, Miss. VA hospital union. Johnson was suspended without pay after being accused of sexual assault.

“President Ben E. Johnson of local 1972 has been on unpaid suspension because of some unproven allegations he was charged with,” Jenkins wrote in an email from August 6, 2011. Jenkins said Johnson wound up being suspended without pay for about two years before finally being exonerated.

The Daily Caller reached out to Secretary Shinseki and Undersecretary Petzel, but emails went unreturned.

Jenkins said the only individual to respond to his inquiry was George Gray, who was head of the regional VISN 16 office, which oversaw the Jackson VA Medical Center.

“Mr. Jenkins, the difference is Mr. Johnson has been charged with a felony, and that situation has not been resolved, whereas Mr. Fillingim has, to this point, not been charged with anything, by the police,” Gray wrote.

Gray has since retired from the VA.

But Jenkins says that explanation is unacceptable. Fillingim wasn’t charged because his blood alcohol level was registered at .03, below the legal limit, but the test occurred about six hours after the incident, and credit card receipts showed Fillingim and another individual shared in more than ten drinks at the bar.

Jenkins said that though Fillingim wasn’t charged, he admitted to numerous violations of the professional codes of the VA. Plus, he added, Johnson was ultimately exonerated.

The way Fillingim and Johnson were treated is indicative of a culture which holds management and non-management employees within the VA to different standards, Jenkins told TheDC.

Citing another example, Jenkins said in 2010 he caught then- Jackson VA Hospital Associate Director Shannon Novotny falsifying documents in order to hire an individual to a managerial human resources position without the proper credentials. While the regional VA office, known as VISN 16, reversed the hire, Novotny was moved into another position with the VA rather than being reprimanded.

As recently as February 10, 2014, Jenkins in an email to VISN 16 leadership noting that he’d been moved to the regional office despite numerous violations which Jenkins had documented with them.

Jenkins told TheDC that if any employee he represented falsified any government document, he’d expect them to be terminated. He said another non-management employee he represented was forced to pay the VA $3,000 after it was determined they wound up in a situation that the VA said was a conflict of interest —  though it was later determined to not be the employee’s fault.

For years, Fillingim had curried favor with the notorious leadership ring at the Jackson VA Hospital, according to Jenkins and interviews with six current and former Jackson VA employees.

The ringleader, according to an Office of Special Counsel (OSC) report, was the former associate director of patient care, Dorothy Taylor-White. Taylor-White was arrested by Drug Enforcement Agents in 2012 and accused by the OSC of directing staff to illegally prescribe narcotics to patients.

Taylor-White was removed from her position at the Jackson VA in 2012, but quietly reappeared in a nebulous management role at the central office before retiring in March 2014. Drug charges against her were dropped in March 2013.

Fillingim worked from 2004-2007 as the administrative officer for Kent Kirchner, then the hospital’s chief of staff. The OSC report includes emails from Kirchner to staff at the Jackson VA Medical Center encouraging them to write prescriptions in an illegal manner.

Kirchner stepped down from his chief of staff position in 2013, but still works in the same facility in a different role. All current and former employees who spoke to TheDC said that Fillingim had a reputation for competence at the Jackson VA Hospital.

Even the director at Jackson VA Hospital at the time of Fillingim’s accident, Linda Watson, only came to Mississippi after she was transferred following the VA Office of Inspector General found Watson had submitted bogus travel documents while working for the VA in Georgia.

The VA has been tight lipped on the situation since news broke. Deputy Secretary of Legislative Affairs Sloan Gibson told House Veteran Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller that he’d only first heard about the case in the media during an HVAC hearing in April 2014.

The VA told TheDC that because the issue involved personnel, it was considered private: “Mr. Fillingim is currently employed by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Due to privacy laws, VA is unable to provide additional detail on individual personnel issues.”