VA director transferred to Mississippi while under investigation

Toby Mathew
Toby Mathew

The Department of Veterans Affairs abruptly removed the director of a VA Medical Center in Shreveport, La., on Wednesday after a months-long investigation of mismanagement allegations and multiple employee complaints to top VA officials, including President Trump’s nominee to take over the agency, current Undersecretary for Health David Shulkin.

But rather than being put on leave pending further investigation, Toby Mathew was transferred to another VA job in Mississippi, a post at a regional VA office in Ridgeland that oversees medical centers in four states, including Louisiana, where he will work on special projects.

The VA said in a statement that the reassignment is temporary and that Mathew is working in a non-supervisory capacity until the agency’s investigation is finalized.

But the move — chronicled in internal documents obtained by USA Today — is emblematic for some employees of an all-too-familiar pattern of shuffling managers around and not taking swift action to hold them accountable.

“Instead of disciplining leaders, it’s a time-honored tradition to move them to different positions of authority at different VA facilities across the country,” said Shea Wilkes, a social worker at the Shreveport VA who has exposed problems there before but was not involved in this case.

Brandon Coleman, a whistle-blower who exposed poor treatment of suicidal veterans at the Phoenix VA, told USA Today that he was surprised by the Shreveport transfer, given Shulkin’s testimony at his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday.

“I’m disappointed that Dr. Shulkin said he would not continue with the status quo, but under his watch, this is happening again,” Coleman said.

The VA said in a statement that the transfer was made “at the behest of local officials,” but that “senior leaders are closely monitoring the situation.”

“Once completed, the evidence will be examined by the appropriate management officials delegated with the duty to take appropriate corrective action,” the statement issued by spokesman James Hutton said.

Mathew could not be reached for comment. He did not respond to a message sent through social media and no one answered at a telephone number listed for him in public records.

David White, a spokesman for the Trump transition team, said the situation “appears to be yet another example of why President Trump's 10-point plan to transform the VA needs to be enacted as soon as possible.”

“Dr. Shulkin made clear during his confirmation hearing that, if confirmed, he would get right to work with Congress to make the changes needed to bring real reforms and far greater accountability to the VA," said White, who stayed on with the transition to help nominees through the Senate confirmation process. A committee vote on Shulkin's nomination is scheduled for Tuesday.

A USA Today investigation published in October revealed that for years, the VA has shuffled medical center directors between jobs and locations; in some cases managers were transferred to new jobs despite concerns about the care provided to veterans at the facilities they were previously managing.

In an interview at the time, Shulkin said that when it comes to appointing medical center directors, “looking forward, I am not going to just simply shuffle people from one place to another.”

The transfer Wednesday came just hours before his confirmation hearing, even though the investigation at the Shreveport VA had been going on for months. In an email at 11:43 a.m., the VA’s director of the region, Skye McDougall, informed Shreveport VA staff that they would have a new, acting director as of noon.

USA Today obtained copies of that email and employee complaints dating back to September that were sent to Shulkin, former VA secretary Bob McDonald, the VA inspector general and other top VA officials.

“It is the opinion of a significant group of senior staff including both clinical and administrative service chiefs that the situation here has reached the point where action is required,” an employee whose name is blacked out wrote in a 16-page complaint dated Sept. 2. “I am requesting and strongly suggesting that Mr. Mathew be put on leave effective on receipt of this document, while you investigate these charges.”

For the rest of this story, visit Clarion-Ledger’s website.