Sharon Helman, the disgraced former director of the Phoenix Veterans Affairs hospital, pleaded guilty to a felony Tuesday, but the terms of her plea deal spare her any time behind bars.
The charge of filing a false financial disclosure carried up to five years in prison. Federal prosecutors said she took a car, cash, and a trip to Disneyland from a lobbyist and contractor seeking business at the hospital, and lied about the gifts, which were valued in excess of $50,000.
Helman presided over a government hospital that systematically falsified data on how long veterans had to wait to see a doctor. The false data was used to insure that the facility’s executives got generous performance bonuses. Dozens of veterans died while waiting for appointments at the Phoenix facility.
Phoenix was the epicenter of the VA scandal that prompted then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation in 2014. His successor, Robert A. McDonald, has tried to fire Helman and other prominent problem executives within VA but has been blocked by excessive civil service regulatory protections.
Helman’s firing on the grounds of the wait-list manipulation was overturned by the Merit Systems Protection Board in the first and most egregious of a series of reversals that have both congressional Republicans and Obama administration leaders in agreement that union-style job protections have left agencies unable to impose standards on even top officials.
According to the Arizona Republic, Phoenix FBI Special Agent in Charge Mark Cwynar said, “Although this plea agreement calls for a term of probation, making a false financial disclosure to the federal government is a felony and will permanently attach to Ms. Helman’s record.” The charge was only for failing to report the gifts, not for accepting them.
Helman has taken responsibility for her actions only under the threat of five years in prison. She refused to resign, appealed her firing to the MSPB, and when that body upheld her firing for the unreported gifts, appealed the decision. She also sued for the return of her performance bonus. It is unclear what the status of those legal actions is.
When she still worked at the hospital, she refused to answer questions, ignoring reporters as she stepped into her Mercedes.
Helman had a questionable track record when she arrived at Phoenix, having bounced from job to job, working at VA facilities in four cities in five years. Her second-in-command had worked in three. The VA has frequently moves around poor performers because it can’t fire them. Helman’s replacements since her resignation have had similarly peripatetic careers.
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