Lawmakers welcome VA case guilty plea, say more needs to be done

While they welcomed Tuesday’s guilty plea by a former Phoenix VA official, lawmakers expressed concern over the pace of reforms at the agency, where problems were first discovered more than two years ago. (Photo by Chad Garland/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – Arizona lawmakers welcomed Tuesday’s announcement that the former director of the Phoenix VA hospital pleaded guilty to failing to disclose gifts from a lobbyist, but said it was too little and too late for veterans waiting for justice.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for Arizona said Tuesday that Sharon Helman pleaded guilty to making a false financial disclosure to the federal government, by failing to report more than $49,000 in gifts while serving as director of the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Phoenix.

The gifts to Helman came from a former “high-ranking VA official” who was serving as a vice president in a consulting and lobbying firm that helped businesses looking expand their work with the VA, according to prosecutors.

“VA executives have an obligation to clearly disclose any potential conflicts of interest. By providing false information to the VA, Ms. Helman concealed her financial relationship with a senior employee of a consulting firm,” said Michael Seitler, special agent in charge from the VA Office of Inspector General’s Northwest Field Office, in the statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Although the charge carries a penalty of up to five years in prison, prosecutors said, the plea agreement with Helman calls for her to get probation when she is sentenced April 25.

Seitler said investigators hope Helman’s guilty plea will “deter any other government executives who may be tempted to conceal this type of information.”

But lawmakers, who have criticized VA management for its failure to discipline top administrators two years after the scandals at the agency were uncovered, said that more needs to be done.

Their frustration was summed up by Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott, who tweeted after Helman’s guilty plea, “Stop the presses… somebody has finally been held accountable at the Phoenix for their corrupt actions.”

Problems at the agency first came to light in that Phoenix VA, where veterans faced significant delays in getting care but agency officials manipulated records to make it look as if patients were being treated sooner – boosting employees’ chances for performance bonuses in some instances.

Audits that began in Phoenix soon found problems at VA facilities across the country, and led to the resignation in 2014 of then-Secretary Eric Shinseki.

“It’s not a stretch of the imagination to learn that the same person who presided over a horrific scandal that involved cooking the books and wait-time manipulations might also be guilty of unlawfully hiding expensive gifts and perks,” said Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Flagstaff, in a statement from her office last night.

“While some folks might think that a guilty plea and probation equal accountability, I’m sure the veterans who’ve suffered due to Phoenix VA mismanagement would disagree,” her statement said.

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said the agency’s “inability to convict Helman for her most serious crimes of wait-time manipulation and whistleblower retaliation has denied the veterans who died waiting for care on her watch the justice they deserve.”

“This failure further underscores the urgent need to eliminate the endless bureaucratic protections that have thwarted any attempt to hold corrupt executives responsible,” McCain said in a statement released by his office.

The statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office said Helman failed to report gifts worth more than $2,000 in 2012, worth another $19,300 in 2013 and totaling $27,700 in the first six months of 2014. The gifts included concert tickets, plane fares, a check and a car, prosecutors said.

VA officials could not be reached for comment on the plea Tuesday evening.

– Cronkite News reporters Jessica Swarner and Marisela Ramirez contributed to this report.