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Veterans Administration must come clean on conduct of Pinellas cemetery director | Editorial
The director was transferred after he faced allegations of workplace misconduct.
 
Bay Pines National Cemetery in St. Petersburg is pictured on Memorial Day in 2016.
Bay Pines National Cemetery in St. Petersburg is pictured on Memorial Day in 2016.
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Nov. 29, 2023

When Doug Maddox was transferred this year from Bay Pines National Cemetery after being accused of sexual harassment, the Veterans Administration did not announce or explain its move, or even acknowledge there was an investigation into the cemetery director’s conduct. One of the few ways Bay Pines employees or the public could have learned of the VA’s action was by being close readers of USAJOBS.gov, where a replacement position was quietly posted in October.

This is no way for a federal agency to handle serious allegations about workplace misconduct. And it certainly won’t foster the kind of transparency needed if the VA is to keep the trust of its many constituencies, including millions of veteran clients and the taxpaying public who foot the bills. Put simply, VA officials don’t deserve any benefit of the doubt.

Doug Maddox stands at a lectern at Bay Pines National Cemetery earlier this year.
Doug Maddox stands at a lectern at Bay Pines National Cemetery earlier this year. [ JUSTIN GARCIA | Times ]

Several years ago, administrators at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa were accused of covering up the unsafe cancellations of hundreds of patient radiology exams. A year later, whistleblowing employees alleged Haley officials ignored a medical equipment recall despite warnings that a patient’s life was endangered. In both instances, hospital officials pooh-poohed the allegations.

So when the Tampa Bay Times last month revealed Maddox’s permanent transfer to the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell, one of the female complainants at Bay Pines expressed dismay, but no surprise. The transfer is just “a slap on the wrist,” said Jennifer Jones, 43, a Navy veteran who was working as an administrative assistant at the cemetery when she quit in frustration in July. The VA says it can’t comment on personnel matters, which is unfortunate in this instance. But it should not be allowed to just sweep this mess away without an official airing.

Earlier this year, Jones and another female employee at the cemetery told the Times that Maddox bullied staffers and made demeaning comments about women. One said he even made inappropriate comments to widows who were planning to bury their husbands. She filed a federal complaint last year. Jones, who started working at Bay Pines in 2021, said she often left the cemetery to go on monthslong naval deployments. When she returned, she said she had to endure bullying from Maddox, including inappropriate comments about her clothes.

She said she told Maddox he was making her uncomfortable and submitted a sexual harassment complaint in March. When the Times approached her a few months later, she said VA management pressured her not to talk. She said she was threatened with termination if she didn’t submit a statement about her interaction with the reporter.

“I feel like I was forced out the door,” Jones said.

Enter U.S. Rep. Anna Paulina Luna, R-Florida, who said her office has for months received complaints about operations at the cemetery. She said she tried to work with leaders there but has been “underwhelmed” by the response. She finally went over their heads.

“We have been in direct contact with Rep. Luna’s staff and are actively addressing her constituent concerns,” a spokesperson with the National Cemetery Administration recently told the Times.

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This fight appears personal for Luna, a veteran who served five years in the U.S. Air Force. She deserves credit for her efforts, and we hope she’ll keep demanding answers. A spokesperson for U.S. Rep Kathy Castor, D-Florida, said she is also aware of the issue and is weighing in with oversight committees in Congress.

Jones said she wants action taken, accusing cemetery management of manipulating the system to protect themselves.

“It’s not just about me,” she said. “It’s about the next person that works there, it’s about the families that visit and the veterans like myself. Those are the people that need to be taken care of and respected.”

We couldn’t have said it any better.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.