The former Phoenix VA director is out, a federal judge confirms, but not due to falsified wait times. Instead the judge pointed to the director’s acceptance of Beyonce tickets as a conflict of interest, Stars and Stripes reports.
Sharon Helman, director of the Phoenix Department of Veterans Affairs’ Health Care System, has been the focal point of controversy since allegations first broke of serious management in the VA. The case is now over, following a final ruling from the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). Helman will no longer be able to collect the $170,000 dollar a year salary she’s been receiving since being placed on administrative leave for seven months.
Like Al Capone getting nailed on tax charges, it turns out that after all this time, Helman is not being fired for knowledge of secret waitlists or lying about wait times at the hospital. She is being dismissed for receiving a total of nine gifts from Dennis Lewis, a consultant whose job it was to funnel government contracts from the VA to clients — a clear conflict of interest case. The gifts included airline tickets for her family, a Disneyland trip, and tickets to a Beyonce concert in 2013, though Helman disputed this point, as well.
“The bottom line is, she is gone. We got her,” said a relieved Garry Augustine, executive director of Disabled American Veterans. said.
Although not enough evidence exists to indicate that Helman was aware, filings to the board show that senior VA executives in Washington knew all about mismanagement in Phoenix for some time. Executive Susan Bowers stated that the Phoenix center stood a large chance of imploding. Apparently, the problems dated back to 2009, when Bowers told then-VA secretary Eric Shinseki multiple times that the Phoenix system wasn’t even close to compliance.
Helman’s case represents a success for the new law passed by Congress which expedites the firing process for VA executives. Yet, most parties are still unhappy. The MSPB board is only allowed 21 days to make a final determination, a time limit the presiding judge made sure to mention was insufficient to render a proper ruling.
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller was also disappointed that Chief Administrative Judge Stephen Mish determined that Beyonce tickets, rather than wait times, were what ultimately made the firing legitimate. Helman’s lawyers in the meantime are still maintaining that she’s been chosen to “bear the brunt of the contrived political outrage” and represents a convenient scapegoat for an agency eager to throw a visible figure under the bus.
“While I am glad the MSPB upheld Sharon Helman’s firing, the fact that the ruling did not connect the central figure of VA’s wait time scandal to any wait time schemes demonstrates a huge problem with the way this case was handled,” Rep. Jeff Miller said in a statement. “It’s absolutely critical that VA take steps to ensure these individuals are held accountable as soon as possible to the maximum extent under the law.”
For the next Congress, Miller announced his intentions to keep the pressure on and figure out different ways to assist the VA in shedding itself of corrupt figures.