A new Chief of Staff announced at the Altoona Veterans Admission

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The James E. Van Zandt VA Hospital in Altoona, Pa. (Public domain photo from the hospital's Facebook page)

WASHINGTON, August 2, 2017 – The Altoona VA Medical Center has announced that a new chief of staff will start next week.

“On August 7, Dr. Ali Sonel will assume the role of chief of staff at the James E. Van Zandt VA Medical Center (VAMC) in Altoona.” A statement from the hospital announced. “This temporary appointment is necessitated by the retirement of the current chief of staff.

“Sonel is the chief of staff at VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System (VAPHS) and a faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. He also performs cardiac catheterizations and conducts research. Sonel is a fellow of the American College of Physicians as well as the American College of Cardiology.”

Sonel takes over for Santha Kurian, MD.


Dr. Kurian announced dramatically that she was retiring during the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) trial of Altoona VA employee and whistleblower, James DeNofrio.


Second exec moved from scandal-plagued Altoona VA hospital


The hospital has gone through another carousel at the top. Since their longtime medical director, William Mills, was moved to the Memphis VA in 2016, the hospital has gone through a series of interim directors.

The current medical director, Charles Thlges, is an interim director.

“We are honored to have Dr. Sonel serve as our interim chief of staff,” said Charles Thilges, interim director of the James E. Van Zandt VAMC. “VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System is an integral part of VA’s health care network in Pennsylvania, and it will be an advantage to have Dr. Sonel here to see how we can continue to expand our relationship with VAPHS to serve Veterans locally.”

DeNofrio’s MSPB hearing, which took place in July, was akin to the trial of the century; the Altoona Mirror covered it every day as did WTAJ; the Washington Examiner also covered the hearing nationally.

DeNofrio, along with a fellow employee named Tim Skarada, raised concerns about a former doctor, Frederick Struthers, who they say was exhibiting cognitive deficiencies; DeNofrio argued he was subjected to a retaliatory campaign after raising these concerns which he eventually took to the Office of Special Counsel.

“Among the complaints are chronic tardiness, difficulty remembering conversations, and agitation. The doctor allegedly performed a testicular exam without gloves, treated patients in the hallway, and on three occasions didn’t provide recommendations to a treating physician.” CDN wrote last year of the allegations.

DeNofrio said he was passed over for promotions, lost other privileges, and most troubling his medical records were illegally accessed and shared.

DeNofrio is an army veteran who gets treated at the hospital.

Hospital management argued that DeNofrio engaged in “upward bullying”; the hospital claimed that DeNofrio engaged in a campaign to get Dr. Struthers and others (all his superiors) terminated.


Altoona VA puts pressure on whistleblowers


Upward bullying, it’s noteworthy, is not found in American law but is rooted in Australian parliamentary law.

The hospital’s argument suffered a debilitating blow when it was revealed at his MSPB hearing that the hospital gave DeNofrio the highest marks throughout; here’s how the Altoona Mirror described that moment.

“Did Watson (DeNofrio’s boss) evaluate DeNofrio’s performance?

“Yes, and the rating was ‘outstanding.’

“At that, DeNofrio, sitting several feet away, smiled.”

Skarada’s MSPB hearing is currently tentatively scheduled for September.

DeNofrio issued this statement to CDN.

“I am cautiously optimistic over the departures of former director Mills and Chief of Staff Kurian.  I hope that the new Director and Interim Chief of Staff can quickly transition the medical center from what I perceived as a culture of retaliation for whistleblowers into a culture of accountability and transparency with the sole purpose of providing the highest quality care to our nation’s Veterans.”

The MSPB is a quasi-judicial body that safeguards the principles of fairness in the federal workplace.

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