Saturday, February 17, 2018
Opinion

Wrongdoing at VA: Public told to butt out

If you didn't know any better you could easily conclude the Department of Veterans Affairs, which has become sort of the Greta Garbo of bureaucracies, was an arm of an uber-classified, super secret banana republic.

You get an inkling that working as a public relations flack for the VA mainly requires mastering the art of muttering, "No comment."

How else to explain why the VA decided to take a vow of omerta rather than publicly explain how a James A. Haley VA Medical Center employee over a two-year period managed to refer 183 patients to a private radiology company in return for $1,372 in … uh, gratuities.

Memo to the VA: Government employees accepting favors in return for shoveling business toward a contractor is what is known elsewhere in society as a bribe. See: Agnew, Spiro.

You shouldn't do it. Wouldn't be prudent. And it's wrong.

Nevertheless the VA has refused to release the name of the errant employee, the name of the radiology company that benefited from the extra juice, or few other details of how the Bruce B. Downs Boulevard baksheesh caper went down.

Why is that?

Well! As the ever-sensitive VA explained to the Tampa Bay Times' William R. Levesque, even though the employee was accepting such gratuities as hockey tickets and using his government job to develop his own business on the side while mishandling patient records and falsifying his time sheets, the agency wanted to protect the poor chap's privacy.

Other than that, the annual employee evaluation was a thing of beauty.

All the VA will admit is that the anonymous employee violated federal conflict of interest regulations. Gee, do you think? But no one seems to want to hurt his feelings by informing the public of his identity. Or showing him the door.

Now there's a Dr. Phil feel-good moment for you.

Pardon the silly question, but is it not unreasonable to assume that if one engages in hinky behavior by accepting material benefits from a private contractor in return for funneling business to said contractor, you could conclude that one was pretty much giving up their right to privacy, not to mention their employment status?

The James A. Haley VA Medical Center is a public entity, supported by taxpayer dollars. The public most certainly has a right to know if a federal employee was receiving kickbacks from a private vendor.

While the invisible employee is being required to give back the value of the swag he received, the VA, which has clammed up tighter than Marcel Marceau, won't disclose any other disciplinary measures taken or what degree of authority the worker holds at the hospital.

So the public has no idea if the geegaw-loving worker was some midlevel minion or perhaps a somewhat bigger big shot within the organization.

Nor does the public know if this was an isolated case of greed and stupidity or part of a more systemic pattern of good ol' boyism at its tackiest.

The VA? They're not talking.

This isn't as if the CIA is being asked to reveal the code names, locations and assignments of its agents. This isn't as if the IRS is being asked to provide the Social Security numbers of the citizenry. This isn't as if the VA is being asked to hand over the private medical files of patients.

What the VA is being held to account for is the identity of a federal worker, who abused his position of public trust to refer customers to an outside vendor in return for gifts, and to explain why this individual is still collecting a taxpayer-funded paycheck.

The VA's inspector general's report is more blacked out than London during the Blitz.

Into the void of candor offered up by the VA it's only fair to ask: What's the big deal? What is the agency hiding? And why?

It's can't be the dubious canard that the VA is merely shielding the identity of the employee for the sake of his privacy. Wrongdoing occurred here, only spared a Department of Justice prosecution in favor of an administrative resolution.

The good news is that the VA did allow that the opportunistic employee had taken the agency's ethics training course. So at least the mystery worker was aware of the conflict of interest when he was accepting all those sporting events tickets.

Whew, for a moment there it might have appeared the VA had a scruples problem.

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