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Judge Upholds Firing of Phoenix VA Boss

DENVER (CN) - The director of the Phoenix Veterans Administration was properly fired for taking gifts from a lobbyist - not because of allegations of delays in healthcare for veterans, a federal judge ruled.

Merit Systems Protection Board Chief Administrative Judge Stephen Mish upheld the firing of Sharon Helman, who was director of the Phoenix Veterans Affairs' Health Care System until she was removed on Nov. 24.

Mish upheld that VA's findings that Helman had accepted an $11,000 weeklong vacation to Disneyland, multiple airline tickets, tickets (and parking fees) for a Beyoncé concert, entry fees for foot races and other gifts from a lobbyist.

Helman claimed that she was singled out, and her privacy invaded, after long delays for medical services in the VA hospital system made national news.

Mish found that though the medical delays may well have cause the VA to turn its attention to her, that's not why she was fired.

"While it is likely that the political spectacle which followed the revelations about how the agency was conducting its business is what led the agency to apply scrutiny to her, taking a close look was not unwarranted under the circumstances," Mish wrote. "Moreover, even if it was somehow inappropriate for the agency to scrutinize the appellant in the manner it did, when the agency did look, it found serious financial improprieties on her part. They are not to be simply ignored."

Mish found that the Department of Veterans' Affairs failed to prove that Helman knew that employees at the Phoenix hospital lied about wait times for veterans, and failed to improve upon wait times.

"[A]n agency must connect the dots of fault from the identified failure by the subordinates back up the line to the manager," Mish wrote. "The agency did not attempt to do so here."

Mish found, however, that Helman accepted inappropriate gifts from lobbyist Dennis "Max" Lewis. Lewis was vice president of Jefferson Consulting, and had business-related discussions with Helman.

The gifts ranged from an $11,000 trip to Disneyland for six of her family members, $729.50 for five tickets and parking to a Beyoncé concert, and a number of roundtrip airline tickets for Helman to travel to Vancouver, Portland, and El Paso.

"I also find that this acceptance of gifts from [Lewis] created the appearance of a conflict of interest," Mish wrote. "Although Jefferson Consulting does not appear to have been doing business, or attempting to do business, directly with the agency, its client companies were. In fact, it is Jefferson Consulting's very business to assist its clients in securing favorable government contracts, particularly with the Department of Veterans Affairs."

Helman argued that she repaid a number of the gifts, but Mish found that she failed to report the acceptance of these gifts.

"I conclude the appellant has little rehabilitative potential," Mish wrote. "She has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing in the course of this appeal and attempted to deflect attention from her own actions by pointing to political considerations and complaining the agency has been looking into her private life."

He affirmed her dismissal.

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