- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 23, 2014

PHOENIX (AP) - A judge has ruled that the Department of Veterans Affairs was justified in firing the former director of its Phoenix office, but not because of delays in care and secret waiting lists that consumed the agency this year.

Instead, Chief Administrative Law Judge Stephen C. Mish ruled that the VA had the grounds to fire Sharon Helman over several gifts she received from a health care consulting organization, including plane tickets, travel, tickets to a Beyonce concert and entry for a marathon.

Helman was removed from her job as the Phoenix VA became the epicenter of a national scandal over the quality of care for veterans amid allegations that patients were dying while waiting to see a doctor. She appealed her firing on several grounds, and Mish ruled against her Monday.

A VA investigation found that at least 40 patients died while awaiting appointments in Phoenix, but officials could not “conclusively assert” that the delays caused the deaths. The judge also found that Helman could not be fired because of the wait lists and delays in care, saying the VA did not prove its case in this regard.

Julie Perkins, Helman’s lawyer, said the former director was “scapegoated to appease Congress” but was happy the judge didn’t find her at fault for any of the allegations of secret wait lists and patient deaths. Several whistleblowers had accused Helman of ordering the manipulations for personal benefit so that she would receive large bonuses from the VA, something Helman has steadfastly denied.

“She was completely vindicated of that,” Perkins said.

The agency issued a statement in which it touted the many reforms it has implemented in recent months, including reaching out to 4,000 vets to accelerate their care and scheduling many more appointments.

“We are making progress in improving access to care at Phoenix and VA facilities nationwide, and we are pleased that (the) decision today helps us begin to put the leadership failures at Phoenix behind us,” the VA said.

Perkins declined to comment on the allegations that Helman had been receiving gifts in violation of VA policy because of a separate ongoing criminal grand jury proceeding into all of the allegations against Helman happening now in Phoenix.

The judge for the Merit Systems Protection Board found that Helman accepted several improper gifts from Dennis “Max” Lewis, vice president for Jefferson Consulting Group. The gifts included airfare around the country, a trip to Disneyland worth more than $11,000 and five tickets to a Beyonce concert. The consulting group had clients with government health care contracts or were seeking such deals, and the judge said Helman should have known it was wrong to take gifts from such a group.

“I find it difficult to believe that she accepted over $13,000 in gifts from Lewis over a two-year period … without knowing what he did for a living,” Mish said.

The judge also cited an email exchange between Helman and Lewis in which the then-director said “Whoooo hoooo!” after the consultant said he was taking care of a marathon trip.

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