VA of­fi­cial de­moted af­ter her tes­ti­mony

The Arizona Republic - - FRONT PAGE - By Dennis Wag­ner

Along­time spokes­woman for the U.S. De­part­ment of Veter­ans Af­fairs in Ari­zona has been re­moved from her post, al­legedly be­cause she breached se­cu­rity by ask­ing her hus­band to upload pho­to­graphs of the Phoenix Veter­ans Day Pa­rade onto a se­cure government web­site.

Paula Pe­dene, a 23-year em­ployee with the VA Health Care Sys­tem, is fight­ing her re­as­sign­ment to the hospi­tal li­brary, claim­ing she is a vic­tim of reprisal by cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tors for tes­ti­mony she gave against former ad­min­is­tra­tors who left their jobs amid fed­eral in­quiries, ac­cord­ing to records ob­tained by The Ari­zona Repub­lic.

Pe­dene’s le­gal ad­vis­ers and VA records in­di­cate the dis­pute stems from a larger con­tro­versy in­volv­ing years of mis­man­age­ment, squan­dered funds, dis­crim­i­na­tion, sex­ual ha­rass­ment and re­tal­i­a­tion at the Phoenix VA.

Pe­dene, the Veter­ans Day Pa­rade co­or­di­na­tor since 1997, was no­ti­fied of her trans­fer in a

Dec. 10 let­ter from As­so­ciate Di­rec­tor Lance Robin­son. He wrote that she was the sub­ject of a “very se­ri­ous” al­le­ga­tion, and he is­sued a gag or­der pro­hibit­ing pub­lic dis­clo­sures.

Pe­dene de­clined to com­ment. But her de­fend­ers said the in­ves­ti­ga­tion con­sti­tutes thinly dis­guised retri­bu­tion for sworn state­ments Pe­dene made about mis­con­duct by pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tors in Phoenix who quit the agency amid fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

In a Dec. 12 let­ter to Robin­son, em­ployee-re­la­tions con­sul­tant Roger French char­ac­ter­ized the dis­ci­plinary ac­tion as pay­back.

“The fact that you have taken a se­ri­ous ac­tion that you are un­able to back up with ap­pro­pri­ate ev­i­dence ... may re­sult in sig­nif­i­cant lit­i­ga­tion,” he warned.

Joseph Abodeely, an at­tor­ney for Pe­dene, sent an­other let­ter to Robin­son on Feb. 11 de­mand­ing that she be re­turned to her job. Abodeely noted that Pe­dene’s hus­band is an au­tho­rized VA vol­un­teer who was asked by his wife to post pho­to­graphs on the agency web­site be­cause of his wife’s dis­abil­ity. Pe­dene is blind. Abodeely crit­i­cized agency ad­min­is­tra­tors for treat­ing that event as a “heinous breach of se­cu­rity.”

“You have un­justly em­bar­rassed, hu­mil­i­ated and de­famed Paula Pe­dene long enough,” he added.

Former Mari­copa County At­tor­ney Rick Rom­ley, who chairs the pa­rade-spon­sor­ing Veter­ans Com­mem­o­ra­tive Com­mit­tee of Phoenix, said he au­tho­rized Pe­dene to hire her hus­band as a pho­tog­ra­pher and can­not un­der­stand VA ad­min­is­tra­tors’ re­sponse to a seem­ingly mi­nor trans­gres­sion.

“Quite frankly, this is peanuts in the se­cu­rity world,” said Rom­ley, who in 2006 served as spe­cial se­cu­rity ad­viser to the sec­re­tary of Veter­ans Af­fairs in Washington. “At the most, she should be orally coun­seled. She is so com­mit­ted to veter­ans, it’s just un­be­liev­able. … No­body ques­tions her sin­cer­ity in want­ing to do things right.”

Paul Coupard, a VA spokesman, said Robin­son and VA Di­rec­tor Sharon Hel­man would not dis­cuss per­son­nel mat­ters. They also de­clined to com­ment on whether any com­puter records had been de­stroyed, al­tered or com­pro­mised by the al­leged se­cu­rity breach.

Al­le­ga­tions of a hos­tile work­place

The $438 mil­lion Phoenix VA Health Care Sys­tem pro­vides med­i­cal care for about 81,000 veter­ans through the Carl T. Hay­den Veter­ans Af­fairs Med­i­cal Cen­ter and seven out­pa­tient clin­ics. The Pub­lic Af­fairs Of­fice writes news re­leases, pro­duces fact sheets and co­or­di­nates me­dia cov­er­age.

Dur­ing 2011, the na­tional in­spec­tor gen­eral for the VA in­ves­ti­gated mis­man­age­ment in Ari­zona that cost tax­pay­ers $11.4 mil­lion, due to ex­cess spend­ing on pri­vate care for pa­tients. That in­cluded $4.5 mil­lion in unau­tho­rized pay­ments. The report blamed sys­temic and lead­er­ship fail­ures for con­trols so weak that $56 mil­lion in med­i­cal fees were paid dur­ing 2010 with­out ad­e­quate re­view. The over­sight fail­ures caused a cut­back in med­i­cal ser­vices and equip­ment for Phoenix veter­ans.

Ac­cord­ing to VA records, Pe­dene was in­ter­viewed in May 2011 by a fed­eral ad­min­is­tra­tive board con­vened to probe the mis­spending along with al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual ha­rass­ment and a hos­tile work­place.

Em­ployee-re­la­tions con­sul­tant French, who no longer rep­re­sents Pe­dene, at­tended the hear­ing by tele­phone. He said Pe­dene tes­ti­fied that the Phoenix VA suf­fered from lead­er­ship run amok. She said that agency bosses in­tim­i­dated fe­male em­ploy­ees and that thenDi­rec­tor Gabriel Perez threat­ened her with ban­ish­ment to a base­ment workspace, mak­ing it clear he did not want a woman — or some­one with a ser­vice-con­nected dis­abil­ity — as the VA’s pub­lic-af­fairs of­fi­cer.

Perez, who had been ap­pointed in 2009 to lead the Phoenix VA and served as the Equal Em­ploy­ment Op­por­tu­nity Com­mis­sion of­fi­cer, re­tired while in­quiries were un­der way. He could not be reached for com­ment.

Pe­dene had been called as a wit­ness in the case, which was ini­ti­ated by em­ployee Sheila Cain, who in 2010 was as­sis­tant chief of the Phoenix VA’s Health Ad­min­is­tra­tion Ser­vices. Cain, a former sol­dier, had sought to re­pair prob­lems with the agency’s bud­get and fee-pay­ment sys­tems. Ac­cord­ing to agency re­ports, her ef­forts led to in­fight­ing over blame and re­spon­si­bil­ity. Cain could not be reached for com­ment.

Cain filed a se­ries of griev­ances al­leg­ing that she was sub­jected to false ac­cu­sa­tions, de­nied due process, stripped of author­ity and iso­lated in a base­ment workspace for six months. An EEOC­com­plaint says Cain en­dured sex­ual re­marks, threats, im­proper touch­ing, pub­lic hu­mil­i­a­tion and other abuse more than 30 times.

In one in­stance, she al­leged that Dr. Christo­pher Ba­corn, then deputy di­rec­tor, hit her rear end with a spat­ula in front of a fel­low em­ployee. Ba­corn could not be reached for com­ment.

‘She stood up and told the truth’

The VA has not re­leased in­ves­tiga­tive and dis­ci­plinary records re­quested March 13 by

un­der the fed­eral Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act. Doc­u­ments ob­tained in­de­pen­dently by lic show Cain also was vic­tim­ized by un­law­ful ac­cess to her med­i­cal records. French said an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of that pa­tient-con­fi­den­tial­ity breach re­sulted in the dis­ci­pline of at least nine em­ploy­ees of the health sys­tem, some of whom left the agency.

French said the VA set­tled the case. Cain re­mains with the agency but not un­der the su­per­vi­sion of Phoenix ad­min­is­tra­tors. In the mean­time, French said, Pe­dene be­came a tar­get of sim­i­lar treat­ment un­der new bosses. Her re­as­sign­ment to the hospi­tal li­brary, ini­tially set at 30 days, is in its third month.

Un­der Pe­dene’s PR lead­er­ship, the Phoenix VA won three pres­ti­gious Sil­ver Anvil awards from the Pub­lic Re­la­tions So­ci­ety of Amer­ica.

French, who has rep­re­sented about 40 VA em­ploy­ees in griev­ances, said he has seen a pat­tern of abuse, dis­crim­i­na­tion and re­tal­i­a­tion in the Phoenix VA. He said Pe­dene was crit­i­cized for her blind­ness, and ad­min­is­tra­tors dis­man­tled a pub­lic-re­la­tions pro­gram once con­sid­ered among the na­tion’s best. Re­cently, he added, Pe­dene’s name was redacted from the VA’s on­line em­ployee di­rec­tory, and her awards were re­moved from a dis­play case at the Phoenix VA.

“She stood up and told the truth,” French said. “It cost (ad­min­is­tra­tors) their jobs, and they threat­ened to de­stroy ad­ver­saries and fam­i­lies.”

French, who was a VA per­son­nel of­fi­cer and in­ves­ti­ga­tor for 33 years, asked De­part­ment of Veter­ans Af­fairs Sec­re­tary Eric Shin­seki to launch a new in­quiry. French’s Feb. 12 let­ter com­plains of nepo­tism, re­tal­i­a­tion and im­proper down­grad­ing of eval­u­a­tions. He­said vic­tims are dis­pro­por­tion­ately fe­male and Black.

“I have never seen the hos­til­ity, cava­lier vi­o­la­tions of reg­u­la­tions and laws (or) lack of dig­nity and re­spect for em­ploy­ees,” French wrote to Shin­seki.

Shin­seki did not re­spond, French said.

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