- The Washington Times - Monday, May 26, 2014

The Department of Veterans Affairs has kept a high-ranking senior executive in charge of a more than $1 billion network of hospitals and clinics despite learning she had falsely claimed to have a master’s degree in official records for years, documents show.

The director of VA’s Sierra Pacific Network, Sheila M. Cullen falsely claimed in “numerous official documents” that Bernard M. Baruch College-Mount Sinai School of Medicine awarded her a master’s degree she never earned, according to a memo by the VA inspector general’s office.

VA officials refuse to say what, if any, punishment Ms. Cullen faced.

But four years later, she remains on the job, overseeing six medical centers and dozens of clinics in northern California, Nevada, Hawaii and the Pacific Rim that provide care to hundreds of thousands of veterans.

Although VA officials were informed about the falsifications in 2009, the question of how they responded remains relevant as lawmakers consider giving the VA more power to fire and demote senior executives.

Lawmakers also are starting to call for the firing of VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki after accusations that VA officials created bogus wait lists of patients to cover up delays for appointments.

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Mr. Shinseki has told reporters he takes a tough stance against misconduct and has removed about 6,000 employees in the past two years. But in the case of Ms. Cullen, who is not tied to the wait list scandal, it’s not clear whether VA even tried to punish her.

Officials refused to comment. But in a memo outlining the years of falsifications on applications for promotions and in a government background check, officials recommended an ethics refresher course.

“Ms. Cullen falsified the fact that she had a master’s degree on numerous occasions, including a form for a background investigation and applications for promotions, and throughout our investigation, she continued to make assertions that she did not misrepresent having a master’s degree,” the inspector general’s office reported in the July 7, 2009, memo to the VA.

“Moreover [the Veterans Health Administration] regularly cited the phony master’s degree in various documents reflecting promotions and positive employment actions related to Ms. Cullen.”

Ms. Cullen confirmed in an email over the weekend that she was interviewed by the VA’s inspector general.

“I completed two years of graduate school however did not complete a thesis and therefore was not awarded a degree,” she wrote in an email.

SEE ALSO: Ben Carson: VA scandal really a ‘gift from God’ to spotlight bureaucracy

“This status was known when I was hired,” she said.

She said she had not seen the inspector general’s report and therefore could not comment. The Washington Times emailed Ms. Cullen a copy of the findings, but she did not respond.

The memo was first unearthed through a Freedom of Information Act request by the transparency site GovernmentAttic.org.

Indeed, hiring forms accurately say Ms. Cullen was a graduate student when she started with the VA in the early 1970s, but subsequent personnel records filled out by Ms. Cullen over the years wrongly stated that she had obtained a master’s degree, records show.

Besides providing false information for a 1997 background investigation, Ms. Cullen submitted a resume three years earlier for a job as director of the VA Northern California Health Care System that also stated she had earned master’s degree in business administration, the inspector general found.

In 1985, for another job, she signed forms listing an MBA in 1974 — a statement that surfaced in other official records, including a 1993 request to promote her into the senior executive service and 1998 records selecting her as the top candidate for director of the VA medical center in San Francisco, according to the investigation.

Ms. Cullen kept the inspector general’s office waiting eight months after they asked her for copies of her transcripts. She told investigators she didn’t realize she had submitted inaccurate information, according to the memo.

“When asked about the resume falsely stating that she earned an MBA, Ms. Cullen said that she did not know who wrote it, and she could not explain why it stated that she had an MBA,” the inspector general’s office told the VA.

Submitting false statements in official records is a federal crime, but the most recent document investigators found that listed the MBA was dated in 1997 — beyond the statute of limitations.

Still, as recently as 2009, “she continued to assert the information she reported in applications for promotion and other records was a mistake and not intentional,” the inspector general’s office stated.

Asked about the recommendation for an ethics “refresher,” Joanne Moffett, a spokeswoman for the inspector general’s office, referred to the final report, saying whether or not Ms. Cullen had an MBA had no effect on her current position.

“We provided the information to VA officials for them to determine what action was appropriate,” she said. “We can’t comment on what action VA did or did not take — as with other administrative investigations, the decision on what action to take is a VA management, not OIG call.”

VA officials refused to discuss the matter and referred all questions to the inspector general, even though only the VA can mete out discipline.

In other high-profile resume passing scandals in recent years, some weren’t so lucky.

George O’Leary was forced to quit five days after he took over as Notre Dame football coach in 2001 after it surfaced that he lied about having a master’s degree.

More than a decade ago, Bauch & Lomb chief executive Ronald Zarrella lost a $1.1 million bonus and offered to resign after acknowledging that he never completed a master’s degree program.

But in 2004, The Washington Times reported on a chief technology officer at the District of Columbia’s elections board who lied about having a computer science degree. The official managed to hold on to the job as officials explained that a computer science degree from 1983 would have been obsolete anyway.

• Jim McElhatton can be reached at jmcelhatton@washingtontimes.com.

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