Internal agency investigators are reviewing possible “impropriety” and political favoritism in the hiring of the director of the Washington DC VA Medical Center. The formal review was confirmed to the News4 I-Team on Tuesday by multiple sources and is the latest in a string of problems for the troubled medical center on Irving Street in Northwest D.C.
A memo from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management dated March 19 says the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs appears to have violated federal hiring rules in its selection of Larry Connell to serve as acting director of the DC VA Medical Center. The memo says an agency supervisor failed to interview qualified candidates for the job, including Connell himself.
“These actions give the appearance that improper preference or advantage was given to Mr. Connell," the memo says. "Based on our merit staffing review, we cannot conclude this selection is free from political influence or other impropriety.”
A copy of Connell’s resume, which was also obtained by the I-Team, says Connell was “personally selected” for the position by VA Secretary David Shulkin, after he served as a senior adviser to him.
The memo said Connell had never held a senior executive-level position in the federal government and was not eligible to serve in the position as acting director of the DC VA Medical Center for longer than 240 days. Connell has served in the position for nearly a year.
A spokesman for the US Department of Veterans Affairs said the agency has launched an internal review of Connell’s hiring. “If mistakes were made, they will be fixed," the spokesman said. The spokesman said Connell has “performed phenomenally” in the position.
The VA declined to provide a comment from Connell.
Connell took over as acting director of the medical center in April 2017, hours after the release of a scathing report detailing supply shortages, unsanitary conditions and mismanagement at the facility. The VA reassigned and later fired Brian Hawkins, the medical center’s former director.
Investigations by the News-4 I-Team and a further review by the US Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General have dogged the facility in the months since, including during Connell’s tenure as acting director.
In June 2017, an I-Team report revealed a patient’s body went undiscovered in the medical center parking lot for nearly two days.
An I-Team report in November 2017 found the medical center cancelled at least nine surgeries amid concerns about the safety of some of the surgical instruments.
And in February 2018, an I-Team report revealed the VA internally classified the DC VA Medical Center as “high risk and low performing,” requiring an added regimen of inspections and reviews by the agency. A higher rate of IV infections and long wait times for some mental health appointments were two of the factors. The I-Team report led to a U.S. Senate inquiry of problems at the facility.
A March 2018 Office of Inspector General investigation of the medical center showed the agency’s administrators failed to heed warnings of supply shortages and sterilization problems at the medical center as far back as 2013. Shulkin called the problems identified by the inspector general as systemic.
"This to me represents a failure of the VA system at every level," he said.
The I-team reported several other problems prior to Connell’s appointment. A report by the I-Team revealed the agency hired a contractor to fix potentially unsafe floor cracks in the facility’s surgery department in March 2017. VA officials also ordered repairs of holes in the walls of the facility’s “center core areas.” The facility suffered a cockroach infestation and a lack of sanitary conditions in its food service areas in 2015, according to reporting by the I-Team.
A VA spokesman said, “Regardless of the circumstances related to his appointment, Larry Connell has performed phenomenally as the Washington DC VA Medical Center’s director, overseeing a host of improvements.”
The spokesman cited a reduction in the wait list for prosthetics for patients.