VA’s firing of Pittsburgh Veterans Affairs director raises new allegations
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs fired the Pittsburgh VA director because of the 2011 and 2012 Legionnaires’ disease outbreak, and it also raised new allegations Thursday of “wasteful spending” against her that it refused to explain.
The VA said it had formally fired Terry Gerigk Wolf, the Pittsburgh VA director for the past seven years, nearly six weeks after it first said it had substantiated charges of “allegations of conduct unbecoming a senior executive” during an investigation.
The Legionnaires’ outbreak led to 22 veterans becoming ill and at least six of them dying. Families of four of them said they were happy to see someone had been held accountable, but they believed Ms. Wolf was being made into a “sacrificial lamb,” as one of them said.
“This is a step in the right direction, but we all know there are others who were responsible, and nothing has been done to them, and we all know who they are,” said Judy Nicklas, daughter-in-law of William E. Nicklas, 87, of Hampton, who died Nov. 23, 2012.
U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, raised that issue during questioning Thursday morning at a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing when he asked Sloan Gibson, the VA’s deputy director, about accountability at the VA for the outbreak.
Mr. Gibson said he looked into the Pittsburgh matter during the summer to see whether anyone who should have been disciplined actually was. He said in every case in which there was culpability found, action was taken, but “in all likelihood I would not have agreed with the nature of those actions.”
“But I had no leeway to go back and address those because those actions had been closed out completely,” he said, “except in one instance.”
That one instance was the case of Ms. Wolf, who was put on paid leave in June pending an investigation.
Mr. Murphy said it was frustrating to learn recently that David Cord, one of the Pittsburgh VA officials who was involved in the outbreak and who advocated to keep information from the public, was recently promoted to be director of the Erie VA.
“I think that’s indefensible and incomprehensible,” Mr. Murphy told Mr. Gibson, adding that Mr. Cord at one point also “misled” him about whether the Pittsburgh VA had a waiting list.
Mr. Gibson said he would look into Mr. Murphy’s allegation about being misled by Mr. Cord. Mr. Cord could not be reached for comment.
The action to fire Ms. Wolf came almost two years to the day that the Pittsburgh VA first announced in a news release, on Nov. 16, 2012, that four patients had contracted Legionnaires’.
On Thursday, as was the case since that first mention of the outbreak in 2012, the VA failed to explain much and actually raised more questions.
For the first time, the VA said in its news release Thursday, not only did investigators substantiate “allegations of conduct unbecoming a senior executive,” but it also had substantiated allegations of “wasteful spending” against Ms. Wolf.
The VA would not explain why it took six weeks to fire Ms. Wolf, even though a new federal law is supposed to shorten the firing period of senior executives to just 33 days.
“I have no additional information beyond the statement,” VA spokeswoman Ramona Joyce said in an emailed response to questions.
Ms. Wolf, who was originally placed on paid leave in June during the investigation, did not return a call seeking comment. David MacPherson, the Pittsburgh VA’s chief medical officer, remains the Pittsburgh VA’s acting director, a post he assumed last month. The VA said it would begin recruiting a new director.
The news release reference to “wasteful spending” confused the families.
“What is that about?” said Maureen Ciarolla, whose father, John, 83, of North Versailles, was the first victim of the outbreak when he died July 18, 2011.
Evelyn McChesney, widow of John, 63, of Columbus, Pa., who died Oct. 23, 2012, said Thursday’s announcement was “just very disappointing for those of us left behind in the wake of deaths of our loved ones to have no one really held accountable. It’s really hard to live with.
“My husband was a good person. He was very patriotic. He fought in an unpopular war — Vietnam — and the least we expected was that he would get good care at a VA facility,” she said. “He shouldn’t have died just because he took a shower there.”
Sean D. Hamill: email@example.com or 412-263-2579.