Feds Put Credit Card Felon In Charge of Major VA Purchasing Program

Luke Rosiak | Investigative Reporter

Almost immediately after Federal Bureau of Prisons Inmate #11109-017 completed a 14-month sentence for using sensitive credit card data on his previous employer’s computer system to steal $70,000, he was hired by the Department of Veterans Affairs in a position that ultimately led to his present job — running an office racked with credit card fraud and bribery problems.

Braxton Linton is prosthetics service chief at the Caribbean Veterans Affairs hospital in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Service chiefs are the top officials in each department in VA hospitals. VA prosthetics offices procure all assistive devices and use government credit cards so often that they are called “prosthetics purchase cards.”

Linton is at least the second convicted felon working in management at the federal hospital in San Juan. The civil service employees union local there recently got an employee reinstated despite her involvement in an armed robbery by arguing that she can’t be discriminated against since the hospital’s human resources manager remains on the job despite being a convicted sex offender.

Linton’s story began in 1998 when he was working as a night clerk in a dorm at the University of Florida and stole mail from freshman students, using their private information to apply for credit cards and racking up $70,000 in purchases.

Police said Linton used his position to prey on the students he victimized. “Not only would the person have to have access to personal information, they would have to have access to intercept the plastic,” an officer said in a front-page news article about the crime.

When credit-card offers came in the mail, he would apply for them using personal info, like Social Security numbers, taken from the college’s private database of students. When statements came showing the huge purchases, he would steal those pieces of mail, so the students never knew.

In addition to the prison time, Linton was placed on three years of supervised release and required to make restitution in the amount of $69,089, according to federal court records.

Now, at the VA, Linton has access to the personal and medical information of thousands of veterans, as well as to federal credit cards. He also oversees a large budget and a staff.

Criminal investigators with VA’s Inspector General received information in 2012 that Puerto Rico’s assistant prosthetics chief was steering contracts to a particular company in exchange for bribes, according to an investigative report reviewed by The Daily Caller News Foundation.

After a year-long bribery investigation, the IG found evidence of criminal misconduct and noted that the amount spent on the contracts had increased six-fold in one year.

In November 2013, investigators told hospital director DeWayne Hamlin that the assistant chief should be fired. But a year passed and Hamlin took no disciplinary action. So in 2014, investigators attempted to bring criminal charges. But federal prosecutors declined to take the case.

That same year, Linton was transferred from the Tampa, Florida, VA hospital to run the Puerto Rico purchasing unit that Hamlin knew to be plagued with criminality. Hamlin, who also has repeatedly been accused of misconduct, also previously worked at the Tampa VA.

Hamlin was arrested in Florida in 2013 after being found with painkillers for which he had no prescription, and he refused to tell police why he had the drugs. Diversion of opiates is a major problem at the VA.

Linton was also arrested for drugs twice while working at the VA, once in 2005 and again in 2006.  A judge agreed to withhold judgment the first time if Linton stayed out of trouble, which he didn’t; the second resulted in a misdemeanor conviction.

As soon as Hamlin moved from Florida to San Juan to lead the hospital, he was accused by his top deputy of stealing from taxpayers by inappropriately billing the government for personal expenses associated with the move. Hamlin responded by removing the deputy, Japhet Rivera, from his post and transferring him to Florida.

The Puerto Rico hospital’s spokesman, Axel Roman, would not say whether Hamlin was involved in Linton’s transfer from Tampa to Puerto Rico.

“The VA Caribbean HealthCare System protects the privacy and confidentiality of all employees and Veterans,” Roman told TheDCNF. “Strict procedures are followed in the recruitment process for all positions. This includes review of a candidate’s education and employment history, performance based interviews by a team of subject matter experts, and a background investigation. I do not have any further background information on the employee’s personal matter.”

Responding to the woman involved in an armed robbery at the Puerto Rico hospital, VA Under Secretary David Shulkin said “criminal prosecution or conviction for off-duty misconduct does not automatically disqualify an individual from federal employment” unless there is a link between the crime and job duties. (RELATED: VA Worker Gets Job Back Despite Armed Robbery Charge)

Tito Santiago Martinez, the Puerto Rico VA human resources manager who is a convicted sex offender, said in his own case, bosses reasoned that “there’s no children in [the hospital], so they figure I could not harm anyone here.”

Last year, Jan Frye, the VA’s deputy assistant secretary for acquisition and logistics, said that prosthetics chiefs were using purchase cards for all manner of unauthorized expenses — even $70,000 worth of veterinarian care for a single pet dog, and medical care for a VA employee who was not a veteran.

“Contracting officers, armed with government purchase cards, simply procure products without contracts, and liquidate the illegal obligations using the purchase card,” Frye said, citing $1.2 billion dollars of problematic credit card purchases made by prosthetics officials in a 18-month period.

The cards are only supposed to be for small items under $3,000, but VA prosthetics chiefs split major purchases up into many bills just under that amount.

At other federal agencies, employees with access to purchase cards have used them to purchase all manner of personal luxuries, such as satellite TV at vacation homes, with no consequences to their employment status.

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Tags : department of veterans affairs puerto rico
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