A longtime spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Arizona has been removed from her post, allegedly because she breached security by asking her husband to upload photographs of the Phoenix Veterans Day Parade onto a secure government website.
Paula Pedene, a 23-year employee with the VA Health Care System, is fighting her reassignment to the hospital library, claiming she is a victim of reprisal by current administrators for testimony she gave against former administrators who left their jobs amid federal inquiries, according to records obtained by The Arizona Republic.
Pedene’s legal advisers and VA records indicate the dispute stems from a larger controversy involving years of mismanagement, squandered funds, discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation at the Phoenix VA.
Pedene, the Veterans Day Parade coordinator since 1997, was notified of her transfer in a Dec. 10 letter from Associate Director Lance Robinson. He wrote that she was the subject of a “very serious” allegation, and he issued a gag order prohibiting public disclosures.
Pedene declined to comment. But her defenders said the investigation constitutes thinly disguised retribution for sworn statements Pedene made about misconduct by previous administrators in Phoenix who quit the agency amid federal investigations.
In a Dec. 12 letter to Robinson, employee-relations consultant Roger French characterized the disciplinary action as payback.
“The fact that you have taken a serious action that you are unable to back up with appropriate evidence … may result in significant litigation,” he warned.
Joseph Abodeely, an attorney for Pedene, sent another letter to Robinson on Feb. 11 demanding that she be returned to her job. Abodeely noted that Pedene’s husband is an authorized VA volunteer who was asked by his wife to post photographs on the agency website because of his wife’s disability. Pedene is legally blind. Abodeely criticized agency administrators for treating that event as a “heinous breach of security.”
“You have unjustly embarrassed, humiliated and defamed Paula Pedene long enough,” he added.
Former Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, who chairs the parade-sponsoring Veterans Commemorative Committee of Phoenix, said he authorized Pedene to hire her husband as a photographer and cannot understand VA administrators’ response to a seemingly minor transgression.
“Quite frankly, this is peanuts in the security world,” said Romley, who in 2006 served as special security adviser to the secretary of Veterans Affairs in Washington. “At the most, she should be orally counseled. She is so committed to veterans, it’s just unbelievable. … Nobody questions her sincerity in wanting to do things right.”
Paul Coupard, a VA spokesman, said Robinson and VA Director Sharon Helman would not discuss personnel matters. They also declined to comment on whether any computer records had been destroyed, altered or compromised by the alleged security breach.
Allegations of a hostile workplace
The $438 million Phoenix VA Health Care System provides medical care for about 81,000 veterans through the Carl T. Hayden Veterans Affairs Medical Center and seven outpatient clinics. The Public Affairs Office writes news releases, produces fact sheets and coordinates media coverage.
During 2011, the national inspector general for the VA investigated mismanagement in Arizona that cost taxpayers $11.4 million, due to excess spending on private care for patients. That included $4.5 million in unauthorized payments. The report blamed systemic and leadership failures for controls so weak that $56 million in medical fees were paid during 2010 without adequate review. The oversight failures caused a cutback in medical services and equipment for Phoenix veterans.
According to VA records, Pedene was interviewed in May 2011 by a federal administrative board convened to probe the misspending along with allegations of sexual harassment and a hostile workplace.
Employee-relations consultant French, who no longer represents Pedene, attended the hearing by telephone. He said Pedene testified that the Phoenix VA suffered from leadership run amok. She said that agency bosses intimidated female employees and that then-Director Gabriel Perez threatened her with banishment to a basement workspace, making it clear he did not want a woman — or someone with a service-connected disability — as the VA’s public-affairs officer.
Perez, who had been appointed in 2009 to lead the Phoenix VA and served as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission officer, retired while inquiries were under way. He could not be reached for comment.
Pedene had been called as a witness in the case, which was initiated by employee Sheila Cain, who in 2010 was assistant chief of the Phoenix VA’s Health Administration Services. Cain, a former soldier, had sought to repair problems with the agency’s budget and fee-payment systems. According to agency reports, her efforts led to infighting over blame and responsibility. Cain could not be reached for comment.
Cain filed a series of grievances alleging that she was subjected to false accusations, denied due process, stripped of authority and isolated in a basement workspace for six months. An EEOC complaint says Cain endured sexual remarks, threats, improper touching, public humiliation and other abuse more than 30 times.
In one instance, she alleged that Dr. Christopher Bacorn, then deputy director, hit her rear end with a spatula in front of a fellow employee. Bacorn could not be reached for comment.
‘She stood up and told the truth’
The VA has not released investigative and disciplinary records requested March 13 by The Arizona Republicunder the federal Freedom of Information Act.
Documents obtained independently by The Republic show Cain also was victimized by unlawful access to her medical records. French said an investigation of that patient-confidentiality breach resulted in the discipline of at least nine employees of the health system, some of whom left the agency.
French said the VA settled the case. Cain remains with the agency but not under the supervision of Phoenix administrators. In the meantime, French said, Pedene became a target of similar treatment under new bosses. Her reassignment to the hospital library, initially set at 30 days, is in its third month.
Under Pedene’s PR leadership, the Phoenix VA won three prestigious Silver Anvil awards from the Public Relations Society of America.
French, who has represented about 40 VA employees in grievances, said he has seen a pattern of abuse, discrimination and retaliation in the Phoenix VA. He said Pedene was criticized for her blindness, and administrators dismantled a public-relations program once considered among the nation’s best. Recently, he added, Pedene’s name was redacted from the VA’s online employee directory, and her awards were removed from a display case at the Phoenix VA.
“She stood up and told the truth,” French said. “It cost (administrators) their jobs, and they threatened to destroy adversaries and families.”
French, who was a VA personnel officer and investigator for 33 years, asked Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to launch a new inquiry. French’s Feb. 12 letter complains of nepotism, retaliation and improper downgrading of evaluations. He said victims are disproportionately female and Black.
“I have never seen the hostility, cavalier violations of regulations and laws (or) lack of dignity and respect for employees,” French wrote to Shinseki.
Shinseki did not respond, French said.
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