Sunday, April 22, 2018
Military News

Bay Pines VA police chief steps aside after stormy nine-year tenure

After a tumultuous nine years on the job, the chief of police with the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System is calling it quits, moving to the engineering department April 10 for what he says are health reasons.

The decision by Chief Robert Shogren, announced to staff via email March 14, came five days after one of Shogren's officers wrote an email to VA Secretary David Shulkin claiming Shogren and his management team were harassing him for being a whistleblower.

"These managers, specifically Robert Shogren and A. Manny Morales have operated on one rule, intimidate, bully, harass and humiliation of anyone who stands up against misconduct of VA employee managers," Officer Ron Testa wrote to Shulkin.

Testa said he was being investigated over a report he filed about a veteran who threatened to kill President Donald Trump. The investigation, Testa said, only began after he came forth in an unrelated case as a character witness for a fellow officer in a dispute with Shogren.

The complaint about Shogren was the second sent to Shulkin, who became VA Secretary in February. A long-running series of complaints involving Shogren and his command staff predates the new secretary and has subjected the department to congressional scrutiny and a review by regional VA headquarters.

Hospital spokesman Jason Dangel declined comment on the contents of Testa's email, saying there is no connection with Shogren's job move.

Shogren came from the VA in Lexington, Ky., in 2008 to lead the Bay Pines police department, which has 50 officers and is responsible for providing security at the sprawling VA medical and claims benefits center.

In a March 14 email, Shogren told his staff he had been on light duty for several months because of knee surgeries and that doctors concluded he had permanent knee damage that would "prevent me from performing the essential functions of my job."

Shogren would not comment for this story.

Officials at Bay Pines say he has made significant improvements to the department.

The number of personnel increased more than 73 percent and the department went from receiving "minimally satisfactory" annual reviews to achieving the highest rating for a police program in the Department of Veterans Affairs the last two years, Dangel said.

"This achievement is a direct reflection of Chief Shogren's leadership and continued dedication to the VA and his department," Dangel said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. "During this same time period, Chief Shogren moved the department away from a strict law enforcement entity to an organization more focused on Veteran-Centered policing."

But trouble started early under Shogren's tenure.

In 2009, a Bay Pines officer was accused of assaulting another officer in the office. A year later, a group of Bay Pines officers filed a federal lawsuit alleging sexual harassment and intimidation by Shogren's staff. The harassment contributed to the 2013 suicide of one officer, according to his ex-wife, a plaintiff in the suit.

The lawsuit alleged that the VA engaged in "a pattern and practice of retaliation and hostile retaliatory work environment" toward those making Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints or serving as witnesses on behalf of others.

Shogren, according to the lawsuit, used ethnically disparaging terms for one employee and demoted another who filed complaints against the department.

The VA denied the accusations, but between 2013 and 2014, agreed to pay 11 officers a total of $1.3 million.

Kendra DiMaria claimed in the lawsuit that she was a victim of sexual harassment and retaliation, and that Patrol Supervisor Manuel Morales retaliated against her husband, Chad Di Maria. Her husband was denied a promotion, she said.

The husband and wife, who spell their names differently, later divorced. Chad Di Maria settled the case. In 2014, he took his own life.

"The events at Bay Pines took a toll on these officers and unfortunately contributed to the end of my marriage. Many would say (friends, family, me) that Chad Di Maria was not the same thereafter," Kendra DiMaria said at the time.

After the suit was settled, U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, a Florida Panhandle Republican and then chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, demanded to know if any personnel were disciplined as a result. VA officials declined comment.

In 2015, a veteran was able to swallow drugs and overdose while in the custody of Shogren's officers.

An investigation by the VA regional office, Dangel said, found space constraints at the VA police building. As a result, an interview room was converted into a holding cell, electronic surveillance systems were expanded, and officers received additional training on processing procedures.

Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.

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