A 240-pound Department of Veterans Affairs nurse’s aide charged with manslaughter in the death of a 70-year-old patient was returned to work at the hospital this month three days before hitting the two-year mark of being on paid leave, against the department’s own policy.
The unexplained move seems similar to the department’s past efforts to game statistics rather than fix underlying problems. Powerful congressmen like Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, have begun routinely requesting spreadsheets from agencies that break down the number of people on paid leave into brackets, such as less than one month, less than six months, and more than two years.
They have identified the VA as a prime abuser of extended paid leave. Two or more years is at the extreme end of the spectrum, and the few employees in that category attract extra attention.
The department previously said that according to its policy, the employee should be on paid leave until his trial in March, 2016.
The Daily Caller News Foundation reported Wednesday that a VA “internal investigation” found that Fredrick Kevin Harris violated no policies and was not “negligent”after an elderly hospitalized veteran died at a Louisiana hospital.
The local coroner, VA inspector general and prosecutors all concluded that manslaughter or worse was involved, and witnesses told them they saw Harris striking the man, who died of blunt force trauma to the head. Harris is out on bail.
Thursday, in response to TheDCNF’s questions, the department told Congress that “[a]ll VA investigative processes were followed. Internal VA investigations look to see if policies and procedures are followed, not for possible criminal activity.”
Separately, VA told The DCNF that the department’s inspector general staff, which is designed to avoid conflicts of interest in “internal investigations,” and whose work can lead to criminal charges, only becomes involved if an internal review finds evidence of criminal activity, a seeming contradiction since they do not look for it.
In this case, however, it was the coroner’s intervention, not the VA internal investigation, that led to a criminal probe by the IG. The incident occurred at the Alexandria, Louisiana VA Medical Center on March 13, 2013.
“On April 5, 2013, he returned to patient care since the internal investigation did not find negligence on the employee’s part. The employee remained in his position until his arrest on December 10, 2013,” the department said.
“In accordance with VA polices, since there was not an indictment, the employee was placed on Administrative Leave until the conclusion of the trial.” The trial is in March, 2016.
But the day after TheDCNF inquired about Harris’s status, and three days before he hit the two-year mark on paid administrative leave, he was returned to the VA workplace.
“The employee bonded out of jail on December 17, 2013. The employee has been on Administrative leave but has since returned to duty in a non-patient care area effective December 7, 2015,” the VA said.
On Dec. 9, Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson told the House Veterans Affairs Committee that “I have no idea” what Harris’ work status was, but he claimed to have a “sense of urgency” about the two-year old case.
Manipulation of administrative leave in the Harris case recalls the VA’s notorious practice of keeping two sets of patient care waiting lists, one that was used for oversight metrics and when calculating employee bonuses, and a second for actual medical appointments. As a result, thousands of veterans were forced to wait months for care, and dozens died before receiving it.
But no high-ranking employees, and only three low-level ones, have been fired. It appears that when the VA wants to appease congressional or media critics, or prevent poor-performing employees from doing further damage, the department pays them to stay home instead of firing them, leading to subsequent pressure from Congress to deal with both administrative leave and employee terminations.
A VA spokesman declined to discuss the return of Harris to work status, but the case suggests manipulating data to create a false impression of the extent to which administrative leave is used.
“What on earth is the VA thinking?” asked Rep. Tom MacArthur, a New Jersey Republican on the Armed Services Committee whose district includes 65,000 veterans. Harris “is still employed and even received paid time off despite serving jail time, and that is truly disgusting,” MacArthur told TheDCNF Thursday.
“Despite increased funding and improved oversight, the VA has demonstrated continued systemic failure and incompetence. It leaves me to wonder what exactly does someone at the VA have to do to get fired, ” MacArthur said.
“Those of us working on legislation to tighten up excessive leave recognize that sometimes leave is the logical choice to protect fellow employees and members of the public. … The point of reforming leave policies is to get agencies to make decisions on leave more quickly, justify their decisions, and be as transparent,” Grassley told TheDCNF.
Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, did not respond to a request for comment.