TAMPA — Department of Veterans Affairs investigators Tuesday interviewed the family of a brain-damaged veteran whose room was monitored by James A. Haley VA Medical Center officials using a camera disguised as a smoke detector.
Natalie Carnegie and husband, Michael Coleman, said they were interviewed for more than four hours by investigators with the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General, or OIG.
The office opened an investigation at the request of U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., after a July story about the camera appeared in the Tampa Bay Times. Both the OIG and the U.S. House Committee on Veterans' Affairs are investigating Haley. Neither comment on pending inquiries.
The interview comes as the couple say they continue to face harassment by Haley officials. It began, they say, after they discovered the camera, which they say was secretly installed.
The couple said Haley has assigned VA police to follow them when they visit Natalie's father, Joseph Carnegie, 80.
VA officials, who said they told the family before installing the camera to monitor Joseph Carnegie's fragile health, have declined to comment about the investigation or allegations of harassment. But officials have previously told the Times the family poses no safety threat to the hospital.
"The focus of the James A. Haley VA hospital and clinics has always been to deliver professional, compassionate care in a safe environment," VA spokeswoman Mary Kay Hollingsworth said. "The VA Inspector General is looking into this situation, and as such, it is inappropriate for VA to respond further at this time."
Carnegie, an Air Force veteran, was admitted to a hospital a year ago suffering from high blood sugar. He soon developed a severe infection at that VA facility before being transferred to Haley.
Then, Carnegie suffered severe brain damage after Haley medical personnel failed to keep a feeding tube clear, the family says. The VA said it is unsure what caused cardiac arrest that led to the brain damage.
The family threatened malpractice litigation. Soon after, they said, the camera was installed and the family's every move in the room recorded.
Natalie Carnegie filed a written complaint about harassment last month with Joleen Clark, deputy director of the VA Sunshine Healthcare Network, a regional agency office.
"We are not thugs, gangsters or the mob," the complaint said. "We are a family."
Haley officials, the husband and wife said, also evicted them in June from their room at Fisher House, a facility on Haley's campus reserved for the families of veterans who live more than 50 miles away. The Carnegie family is from Atlanta.
The couple said they were kicked out right after they discovered the covert camera and complained to Haley administrators. But Haley officials said the move was not harassment.
"It is not uncommon (that demand) for … Fisher House lodging to be greater than the availability of rooms," Haley spokeswoman Carolyn Clark said.
The VA said families typically stay for three months. The Carnegies had been there more than 10 months.
It is a rarity for families to be forced to leave Fisher House before a veteran is discharged from the hospital, said Cindy Campbell, a spokeswoman for the Haley House Foundation, which builds Fisher House facilities at VAs around the nation.
"Normally, it never, ever happens," said Campbell, who acknowledged she knows nothing of this family's situation.
After leaving Fisher House, Carnegie and her husband stayed at a hotel paid for by the Haley House, a private charity. But the couple were asked to leave last week because the charity could not afford to continue to pay, said Mary Ellen Harlan, a Haley House board member.
"The Carnegies are very nice," Harlan said. "I can say unequivocally that we've had no problems with them at all."
The couple said they are temporarily staying at a local hotel on their own dime.