TAMPA — The U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee has opened an investigation into the use of a video camera disguised as a smoke detector in a veteran's room at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center.
Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the committee, said the use of the camera in the room of severely brain-damaged veteran Joseph Carnegie, 80, outraged him. The covert camera was first reported in a July 10 story by the Tampa Bay Times.
News of the investigation comes as Haley officials, still defending the use of the camera, confirmed for the first time Tuesday the device was the only one of its type in use at the hospital. They said it will not be used again.
"There should never be a need for covert, Big Brother tactics" in a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital, Miller, R-Pensacola, said in an email response to questions.
Miller said the VA's lack of transparency was a concern to him.
"This is unacceptable. VA must be transparent to the media and Congress, but more important, to our veterans. That is what is most troublesome about this incident. It breaks the sacred trust between the VA and veterans and their families.
"Without that trust, veterans will begin to feel dismissed by their government, and that is the last thing I want to see happen … There is a huge accountability issue here. No one seems to want to take responsibility for clearly irresponsible acts."
A Haley spokeswoman said the VA had sent a response to the committee. The agency did not respond to a request to provide a copy to the Times.
But in a statement to the Times, Haley officials again defended their use of the camera, saying such equipment is routine among hospitals to ensure patient safety.
The camera in Carnegie's room, installed after his family threatened Haley with a medical malpractice suit, was removed last week. The family first demanded it be taken down six weeks ago.
The camera is marketed by its manufacturer, Vonnic, as a "Smoke Detector Covert Camera."
Haley spokeswoman Carolyn Clark said it will not be used again at the hospital, though the VA has avoided calling the camera's use a mistake.
"There are currently zero cameras of this type installed, in use or in stock for use at Tampa VA," Clark said.
Carnegie's family said they noticed the odd-looking smoke detector in June when it was installed overnight while the family was away from the room.
Upon closer examination, Mike Coleman, Carnegie's son-in-law, said he spotted a camera lens. The VA later confirmed to the Times they had installed the camera. The agency said it was to monitor Carnegie's fragile health.
The family said Haley officials failed to tell them they were installing the camera. Haley's deputy director, Roy Hawkins Jr., confirmed to the Times the camera had been installed without telling Carnegie's family. Hawkins later denied making such a statement.
Hawkins also denied in an interview that the hospital recorded the video feed from the camera.
But Haley officials later confirmed the hospital was recording the video feed.
Clark said Tuesday that Hawkins did not deliberately release inaccurate information. She said he did not know the camera was capable of recording.
Carnegie's daughter, Natalie, said the family viewed the device as an unacceptable invasion of privacy. She said her family welcomed any investigation.
Of the camera's discovery by Carnegie's family, Rep. Miller said, "I can only imagine how traumatic and disturbing that must have been to them, especially when their first concern is their loved one and his health."
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.