Report says Bedford VA officials ignored costly ethics violations for years
A maintenance supervisor at the Bedford veterans hospital and his daughter made $750,000 in improper purchases and steered more than $200,000 to a landscaping company owned by a relative, according to a scathing report released Thursday by a federal whistle-blower agency.
But the Department of Veterans Affairs largely ignored the wrongdoing for years, the report said. The daughter, Heather Garneau-Harvey, still works for the VA even though she “committed multiple government ethics violations” and was caught lying by investigators, the report noted.
“By allowing an employee who engaged in this conduct to remain with the agency, the VA demonstrates a shocking degree of indifference to government ethical standards, procurement regulations, and public integrity,” wrote Henry Kerner, head of the federal Office of Special Counsel.
Though a whistle-blower came forward as early as 2011, his allegations were ignored until Kerner’s office ordered the VA to investigate.
The report, sent Thursday to President Trump, came hours after the Office of Special Counsel released a separate report critical of the Manchester VA Medical Center.
Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital in Bedford has been under immense scrutiny. A federal grand jury is currently examining issues at the hospital, according to someone with direct knowledge.
The Globe revealed in September that Vietnam veteran William Nutter died there while a nurse’s aide assigned to watch him allegedly played computer games. Massachusetts’s two US senators and several other members of Congress called on VA Secretary David Shulkin to investigate the death and “rectify” systemic problems at Bedford and other VA facilities.
Shulkin, who visited Bedford in November, blamed the lack of a permanent director and general instability for many of the hospital’s problems. Bedford hasn’t had a permanent director since 2016.
Following the release of Thursday’s report on the Bedford VA, Shulkin’s spokesman said the agency will take “appropriate” action against local leaders who failed to remove the employee.
“The disciplinary action highlighted in this report is wholly inappropriate and isn’t anywhere close in proportion to the offense that necessitated it,” said spokesman Curt Cashour. “Veterans deserve to know VA will hold employees accountable when the facts demonstrate they have failed to uphold the high standards taxpayers expect from us.”
The former maintenance and grounds supervisor, Dennis Garneau, resigned in 2015. Garneau-Harvey was demoted in October for “lack of candor” and given a pay cut. Neither could be reached for comment Thursday evening.
The Office of Special Counsel began investigating Garneau-Harvey and her father in 2014 after Kevin Cornellier, a tools and parts attendant at the Bedford VA, made “repeated attempts” to alert authorities, including the VA’s Office of Inspector General. His allegations were never investigated, the report said.
Cornellier alleged that purchasing agents made “suspicious, frequent and significant” purchases for landscaping materials but the materials were never delivered.
The Office of Special Counsel, which investigates whistle-blower complaints, found a “substantial likelihood” of wrongdoing and referred the matter to the VA for further review. Investigators from the VA’s Office of Procurement and Logistics “largely substantiated” Cornellier’s allegations, the report said. At Garneau’s direction, purchasing agents in his department allegedly bought more than $200,000 in snow removal and other material from Earth Creations Landscaping, a company owned by his son.
Heather Garneau-Harvey, a “health care specialist” in the department, also signed purchase orders made out to Earth Creations Landscaping, according to the report.
The investigation revealed the maintenance and grounds department ordered more than $750,000 in landscaping materials at the direction of Garneau but failed to provide any evidence the goods were delivered; 50 percent of the orders placed with a government “purchase card” over a three-year period lacked any documentation such as an invoice or packing slip.
The whistle-blower had alleged the materials went to local private landscaping companies that had an “illegal arrangement” with Garneau.
In an interview with investigators in June 2016, Garneau-Harvey said she did not know Earth Creations Landscaping was owned by her brother and that she never discussed the company with her relatives. But investigators found e-mails with to members that discussed the VA making payments to the company as early as 2011.
In another interview, Garneau-Harvey said she had the business arrangement cleared by local managers and counsel. But the local managers and counsel denied ever making those statements, according to the Office of Special Counsel.
The matter was referred to the US attorney’s office; it declined to prosecute in August.
Even after Garneau-Harvey was reassigned, she continued to work with the maintenance unit, prompting another whistle-blower to come forward.
The Special Counsel referred the new allegations to the VA in April, which determined Garneau-Harvey was “no longer in a position to influence any agency purchases.” In October, the VA demoted her and cut her pay by roughly $20,000 a year.
Cornellier called the outcome unacceptable.
“The main reason I had contacted [the Office of Special Counsel] initially is that supplies needed to maintain the facility were not being purchased,” he wrote in a statement attached to the Special Counsel’s report.