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Harassment charges shake up VA // MANAGEMENT TROUBLES

Nearly 30 executives at the Department of Veterans Affairs have been investigated by the agency's auditors over the last three years for misspending medical accounts, contract irregularities and mismanagement.

The disclosure comes as Veterans Secretary Jesse Brown is making the case that his agency meted out stiff punishment to 12 employees who have ignored his "zero tolerance" policy against sexual harassment.

But there is trouble at the VA beyond sexual harassment. A review of VA inspector general cases and other investigations indicates management troubles of all sorts in the vast VA system.

A list of inspector general cases, released to the Times under the Freedom of Information Act, indicates the VA's watchdog agency has investigated 27 cases of mismanagement involving members of the department's senior executive service since 1994.

Few of the episodes involve large sums of money, and not all of the allegations are substantiated, but the complaints seem to reflect the frustration of VA employees who are upset about their bosses' spending habits when the government is cutting back. Many of the investigations begin with anonymous calls to the VA's whistleblower hot line.

There is the case of the director of the VA Medical Center at Lake City, Fla., who spent $31,000 in taxpayer's money on an office renovation. And there is the director in Tuscon, Ariz., who spent $138,000 to enhance a conference center that later was named after him. Two other managers were criticized for being slow to respond to a string of deaths at a VA hospital in Columbia, Mo.

Still other substantiated cases include a one-time VA medical inspector who billed the agency for first class travel and a former VA official who tried to improperly steer a consulting contract to a firm recommended by a friend.

The inspector general's list of investigations involving executives also was requested in recent weeks by the General Accounting Office. That agency is investigating the House Veterans Affairs Committee's suspicions that the VA fails to discipline managers who violate regulations or run their facilities poorly.

The Times reported last week that hospital directors at Pittsburgh and Charleston, S.C., kept their jobs despite inspector general findings that they had misspent taxpayers' money. One director spent $201,000 to refurbish his government-provided home with $500 faucets and a whirlpool. Another approved a $26,000 fish tank for his hospital.

Since then, other cases have surfaced, culled from the inspector general files and other sources. They include:

In Lake City, medical center director Alline "Genie" Norman approved a $31,000 renovation of her office suite, without getting required approval from the VA's headquarters. The inspector general did not find the decorations to be lavish, but instructed her to notify Washington's headquarters.

The inspector general also found that Norman inappropriately had her staff hire a private contractor, who had been banned from federal work because of her background.

Separately, a group of five current and former employees are suing the VA, complaining that the department ignored its own personnel rules in hiring a chief of staff.

Norman, who makes $121,265, did not respond to a request for comment.

In Tucson, Ariz., a special management review _ not the inspector general _ found that a one-time medical director diverted money from medical accounts to enhance the construction of a convention center, according to the Arizona Daily Star.

The center was later named for the director, Robert Lindsey Jr., who has since retired.

Dan Johnston, a spokesman for the VA in Tucson, pointed out that the audit did not find Lindsey had misspent $138,000, but only found a $10,000 purchase of new doors inappropriate.

In Columbia, Mo., two top administrators at the Harry S. Truman Medical Center were sharply criticized by the inspector general for failing to act promptly when they heard of a sudden increase in patient deaths.

A 1995 inspector general report said that Medical Center director Joseph Kurzejeski and chief of staff Earl Dick learned of the unexplained increase in deaths on Aug. 4, 1992. They learned that a single nurse was involved on Aug. 17. Nonetheless, the nurse was allowed to work alone on the ward three more days _ and three deaths occurred during those days, according to published reports.

"In our opinion, Mr. Kurzejeski was far too complacent in dealing with a very serious issue," the inspector general said.

Kurzejeski retired in summer 1994, taking advantage of a $25,000 buy-out available to longtime federal employees, according to hospital spokesman Stephen Gaither.

Dick, former chief of staff, voluntarily stepped down in August 1994 to become the associate chief of staff for education. But he did not take a drop in salary, which is now $149,661, according to Gaither.

The cause of the deaths has not been fully explained, and the nurse who was working during many of the deaths was never charged. In all, the inspector general says, the nurse was on duty for 45 of the 55 deaths that occurred on the same ward in a six month period.

_ Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.