The former career senior executive who ran the Veterans Affairs Department’s Phoenix health care system when the scandal over falsifying wait lists erupted in 2014 has pleaded guilty to lying on her government financial disclosure form about gifts she received from a lobbyist.
Sharon Helman, who ultimately lost her job over improperly accepting thousands of dollars in gifts from Dennis “Max” Lewis, a former vice president of Jefferson Consulting Group, will get probation with no prison time as part of a plea deal, the Arizona Republic reported. Making a false financial disclosure to the government is a felony that can carry a maximum of five years in prison.
Helman failed to report more than $50,000 in gifts, travel expenses and trips from Lewis, according to the news report, including a trip to Disneyland for her and her family, and tickets to a Beyonce concert. Helman ran the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center in Phoenix from 2012 to 2014, the epicenter of the scandal over employees’ manipulation of appointment waiting lists to conceal excessive delays for vets seeking health care.
The VA fired Helman in November 2014 under its new expedited authority, arguing that her lack of oversight contributed to the falsification of the waiting lists. The agency also claimed Helman ignored the situation when she became aware of it, failed to notify senior leadership about the issue, and retaliated against department whistleblowers.
Helman appealed her removal to the Merit Systems Protection Board, which upheld her firing but not because of misconduct related to the wait times, or whistleblower retaliation, but because she improperly accepted Lewis’ gifts and failed to honestly report them to the government.
“In the context of the appellant’s position, as an SES director of a sizable health care system with a large budget, one must be scrupulous to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest and to correctly report the things of monetary value one receives from others,” Chief Administrative Judge Stephen C. Mish wrote in his 2014 decision. “The higher ranking one is, the more important those things become.”
House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said that while he was “pleased” that Helman was facing some consequences for her behavior, he was also “extremely puzzled as to why the Department of Justice chose to coddle her with a sweetheart plea deal that amounts to nothing more than a weak slap on the wrist.” Miller said “such extraordinary leniency is an insult to the many veterans who suffered from the malfeasance and mismanagement of the Phoenix VA health care system.”
Miller shepherded the 2014 law that allows the VA to fire or demote SES employees immediately, with paychecks getting cut off the day of termination. The affected executive has seven days to issue an appeal to MSPB, which in turn has 21 days for an expedited adjudication. The House last summer passed Miller’s bill that would make it easier to fire all VA employees -- not just senior executives -- accused of misconduct or poor performance. A similar bill, sponsored by Republican presidential contender Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, is pending in the Senate.
The Obama administration, which supported the 2014 Choice Act making it easier to fire senior executives, has threatened to veto Miller’s bill extending that authority to the department’s entire workforce.
Helman isn’t finished with the legal system just yet. She is challenging her removal under the 2014 Choice Act in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, arguing that the law, which VA used to fire her, violated her due process rights.
The outcome of the Helman case, which is awaiting a trial date, could determine how future disciplinary actions against VA senior executives are handled under the 2014 Choice Act. The MSPB’s recent reversals of the demotions of Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves, and its overturning of Linda Weiss’ firing, has made waves among lawmakers, senior executives, VA leadership and the veteran community.