ALTOONA, PA., September 15, 2016 – Whistleblowers at a Pennsylvania Veteran Administration (VA) hospital say a board which could terminate their employment was convened in retaliation and has dragged on for nearly a year, long past the time it is supposed to take to make a decision.
James DeNofrio and Tim Skarada say they are two of the individuals currently the subject of an Administrative Investigative Board (AIB) by the Altoona VA Medical Center, where both are employed.
An AIB is “an internal review and results are usually not publicly disclosed. This is an important process we use to get to the ground truth and where there is evidence, hold people accountable. Recommendations in an AIB are delivered to the VA facility’s leadership and are reviewed for follow up,” according to Andrea Young, public affairs officer for the Altoona VA Medical Center.
Both were informed last December that an AIB was convened. DeNofrio and Skarada believe the timing is suspicious, since it took place shortly after it became known they were cooperating with the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) regarding allegations that the hospital was compromising patient care.
The AIB was initiated by William Mills, then the Director at the Altoona VA Medical Center.
Mills convened the AIB against Skarada and DeNofrio because they “had brought up false allegations to the OSC in order to intimidate management.”
Days after the OSC investigation was released Mills was quietly moved to head the Memphis VA Medical Center. According to an internal email Mills is scheduled to retire at the end of September.
Besides the OSC, CDN reported that allegations that the Altoona VA Medical Center was illegally accessing veterans’ medical records was added to a longstanding investigation by the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights into allegations of systemic violations by the VA whereby officials illegally accessed medical records of whistleblowers who were also veterans and patients in the VA system.
The VA Office of Inspector General, it was recently revealed, was investigating allegations that the hospital was manipulating patient data.
All allegations originated from complaints made by DeNofrio and Skarada.
Though an argument could be made that since multiple agencies are now investigating the hospital based on these whistleblowers report this fact, in itself, makes the allegations in the AIB wholly without merit the AIB continues without end nearly a year later.
According to a March 2016 letter from the head of the Veteran Integrated Services Network (VISN) 4, a regional office which includes this hospital, to Pennsylvania Senator Robert Casey claimed the AIB would be concluded in April.
“The board chair is currently compiling the final report,” VISN 4 Director Michael Adelman said in a letter from March 29, 2016 to Senator Casey, “which is due to be completed by April 8, 2016 to be provided to the medical center Director/Acting Director.”
A follow up letter from June pushed the target date back to July and an email from July from the VISN to Casey’s office said completion was imminent.
“The AIB was completed and is in the process of being finalized,” according to a July 28, 2016 email from a VISN staffer to a staffer in Senator Casey’s office.
But then an email from Casey’s staff to DeNofrio from August 30 said it was still weeks from completion, “The AIB report and subsequent recommendations are currently being reviewed in order to provide recommendations on any appropriate action. This review is expected to be completed within the next several weeks.”
A phone call to Senator Casey’s office was left unreturned.
Young added to the confusion telling CDN this: “There was an AIB conducted within the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Service January 25 through February 3, 2016, and results were delivered to the Acting Director of the James E. Van Zandt VA Medical Center on June 10. The proposed remediation is being reviewed and evaluated by the Acting Director with consultative review done by VA Human Resources.”
An email from a staffer in Casey’s office to DeNofrio, sent the day after CDN received its statement also suggested completion was imminent, “The report and any applicable recommendations have now been presented to the Acting Director. She is currently off station and will be addressing when she returns next week.”
Whatever assurances have been made to Senator Casey’s office and to CDN that the AIB is largely finalized, both Skarada and DeNofrio told CDN that now in September they still don’t know their fate.
Skarada said the length of time has far exceeded what is normally allowed, “Normal AIB deemed timely at 45 days. We are over 9 months of formal AIB process. This was used to intimidate witnesses and was used to slander our reputations within our facility, VISN 4, and the entire VA.”
Meanwhile, the AIB has also stalled an investigation initiated by DeNofrio, this one with the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) for whistleblower retaliation and other charges.
Because of a bureaucratic rule, no one interviewed by the AIB is allowed to be deposed for any other matter on this issue while the AIB continues, but many of the witnesses that DeNofrio intended to call in his MSPB were deposed in the AIB.
As such, the judge in his MSPB case was forced to dismiss the case without prejudice, meaning it can be refiled, because the time to call witnesses had passed as a result of the AIB remaining open for so long.