Congress is expanding its investigation of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, in the wake of a News4 I-Team report.
During a congressional hearing Thursday, the chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Veterans Affairs ordered the agency to explain its decision to rehire a senior executive involved in an incident that killed a co-worker in 2010, and he ordered the VA provide the information as soon as possible.
Police records and personnel documents obtained by the I-Team under the Freedom of Information Act recently revealed Jed Fillingim, a Department of Veterans Affairs financial manager, admitted drinking and driving a government truck during a June 2010 business trip to Texas, when his colleague Amy Wheat fell from the moving vehicle and died.
Though Fillingim resigned his job in November 2010, five months after the incident, the I-Team learned he was rehired in March 2011, to a different post in a VA office in Georgia. Fillingim was rehired despite being the subject of an ongoing federal investigation into misconduct. Fillingim has retained the job ever since, despite investigators ruling he misused a government vehicle by driving it “intoxicated."
House Committee on Veterans Affairs Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), during the Thursday hearing, called the incident “egregious” and asked a VA deputy secretary to provide details about who decided to rehire Fillingim and why. Miller also asked, “Why isn't drinking and driving a government vehicle a fire-able offense?”
The agency’s deputy secretary, Sloan Gibson, said he wasn’t familiar enough with Fillingim’s case to provide answers.
“It’d be speculation on my part,” he said.
Also Thursday, Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), a member of the Senate’s Veterans Affairs Committee issued a statement questioning VA’s handling of the Fillingim case.
“I have serious concerns about the continued lack of accountability within the Department of Veterans Affairs’ system of management and discipline of its employees,” Isakson said. “Not only is it troubling that the VA would rehire someone who is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation by its own Inspector General, but this agency’s refusal to answer for its actions citing privacy concerns is unacceptable.”
Police records show Fillingim was arrested by Addison, Texas, police immediately after Wheat’s death on suspicion of “intoxication manslaughter” in June 2010. During a police interrogation, footage of which was obtained by the News4 I-Team, Fillingim admits drinking that evening. Prosecutors chose not to charge Fillingim with a crime, according to police records. His blood alcohol level was measured at 0.03, below the legal limit for intoxication, though the test was administered nearly six hours after the truck incident was reported to police and 12 hours after Fillingim estimated he’d entered a nearby bar. The police report said there was no evidence of “foul play” and “all indication is that Wheat exited [the truck] on her own accord.”
The third VA employee in the truck, Chad Barney, was arrested for public intoxication. Prosecutors also declined to file charges against Barney.
Police reports say credit card statements from Fillingim and Barney show the men purchased a total of more than a dozen alcoholic drinks the night of Wheat’s death at the BlackFinn bar in Addison, including “jaeger bombs,” beer and vodka. A waitress told police some of the drinks were purchased on behalf of other patrons at BlackFinn.
In January 2012, federal investigators with the U.S. General Services Administration Inspector General’s office found Fillingim and Barney had operated the government vehicle outside “proper policy guidelines, including driving a (vehicle) intoxicated.”
Rep. Miller said the VA should explain why it continues to employ a worker who admits driving a government vehicle while under the influence of alcohol.
“They don't want to seem to hold anyone accountable for doing anything wrong,” Miller said. “The VA needs to quit being afraid of disciplining people and firing them."
In December, the committee formally asked the Veterans Affairs Department to hand over its records on Jed Fillingim within 10 days. But a committee spokesman said no response has been received yet.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs declined to comment on Fillingim’s rehiring. An agency spokeswoman issued a statement saying, “Due to privacy laws, VA cannot provide additional detail on personnel issues.” The spokeswoman confirmed the agency investigated the death and found the two employees were operating the vehicle “outside VA policy guidelines.”
Jed Fillingim, reached by phone, declined to answer questions about the June 2010 incident. When asked how he managed to again find work at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Fillingim said, “That’s on the VA to answer those questions.
Wheat’s father, James Mobley, told the News4 I-Team the death of his daughter is a “tragedy.” Mobley said he’s disappointed Fillingim has not contacted the Mobley family with an explanation for what happened the night of her death.
Personnel records do not cite the specific reason for Fillingim’s resignation in November 2010, five months after the deadly incident in Dallas.