The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has admitted it made a “deeply regrettable” decision by rehiring a highly paid executive involved in a 2011 scandal.
The executive, Jed Fillingim, had admitted his role in a fatal drinking and driving incident in a government truck on an agency business trip. Newly obtained internal VA memos show top administrators were so concerned about the decision they also staged an emergency meeting in Washington, D.C., in 2011 to discuss potential blowback and strategize their response to criticism.
Despite the new revelations and expression of regret, the agency nevertheless continues to employ Fillingim. Critics of the agency said, in doing so, the VA is showing itself to be too tolerant of bad behavior and too sloppy in its hiring. The leader of a Congressional panel is promising an investigation by his committee.
VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson said the I-Team’s findings about Fillingim’s misconduct and rehiring indicate there has been a “lack of accountability” within the agency. But he said the decision to rehire Fillingim was irreversible. Fillingim said there’s a settlement in place in the case. “My ability to take any further action was limited,” Gibson said. The agency wouldn’t provide details on the nature of the settlement.
Police and federal investigators found Fillingim drove a government truck after drinking with two colleagues at a bar near Dallas while attending a June 2010 conference for federal employees. One of the two colleagues, Mississippi-based VA employee Amy Wheat, who had also been drinking that night, fell out of the truck while it was moving and died after suffering severe head injuries and a severed leg in the fall.
According to police reports, credit card statements from Fillingim and Barney show the men purchased a total of more than a dozen alcoholic drinks at the BlackFinn bar in Addison the night of Wheat’s death, including “Jaeger bombs,” beer and vodka, some of the drinks for other patrons. The BlackFinn was the first of multiple bars the group visited during a night of barhopping in the government truck.
Fillingim was arrested after the fatal incident, but not criminally charged. An I-Team review found police failed to administer a breathalyzer test to Fillingim until six hours after the incident. During the test, Fillingim’s blood-alcohol level measured 0.03, below the legal limit. A review by federal investigators found Fillingim nevertheless violated government policy for the use of a government vehicle by driving it without a valid driver’s license and while “intoxicated.”
Though Fillingim resigned in November 2010, an I-Team review of federal employment records found the agency rehired him to a $100,000-a-year position at its Augusta, Georgia, office in March 2011. Wheat’s family said it was never notified until informed by the I-Team in April 2014.
Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said he will continue investigating the VA’s decision to rehire Fillingim, including in a meeting next week with the agency’s new leader, Secretary Bob McDonald. Miller said, “Accountability is not the VA’s strong suit.”
Wheat’s mother, Annette Berry, said, “It’s just not right. They should fire him. There’s been no criminal punishment. No VA punishment. He’s making the same salary (now).”
Berry said, “I’d like to know why the VA handled this so poorly and why Jed has this job.”
Internal VA memos recently obtained by the I-Team reveal top agency lawyers and administrators, including chief of staff Lisa Thomas, convened an emergency meeting to discuss Fillingim’s rehiring in June 2011, three months after he rejoined the agency. The memos indicate concerns that a mistake was made and that Congress might eventually investigate the decision.
The memos indicate an agency human resources officer failed to properly investigate Fillingim’s background, including his role in the fatal truck incident, when the officer rehired him in 2011. The memos also show Fillingim declined to answer a question on his job application, which would’ve flagged or specified the incident to the hiring officers in 2011. Agency lawyers, in the memo, also cited a “lack of candor” by Fillingim, saying he had concealed that his driver’s license was expired when he drove the government truck on the night of the deadly incident.
Former VA administrator Darin Selnick said the staging of such a meeting is unprecedented. Selnick said it’s remarkably rare for top agency administrators in Washington, D.C., to convene a meeting about a regional business office employee’s hiring. Selnick said, “They knew they had a big problem, because those (high-ranking) people don’t get together unless they have a big problem.”
Selnick said, “They should’ve never hired this guy back. And they knew it.”
When reached by News4 I-Team, Fillingim released the following statement:
"I followed all rules and requirements for federal employment in 2011. I acknowledge having made mistakes in the past that I am deeply regretful of but I remain fully committed to the mission of the VA and the veterans we serve."
Berry, Wheat’s mother, said she wants the agency to review the decision and dismiss Fillingim. “I don’t think he should get off ‘scott-free,' which is what he’s done,” she said.
The VA declined multiple requests for comment on why Fillingim was rehired and why he remains employed. When asked about the agency memos obtained by the I-Team, the agency said, “The meeting you asked about took place on June 17, 2011.”
Agency spokesman James Hutton also issued a written statement in response to the I-Team’s questions about Fillingim. It said, “We are changing our culture, which includes acknowledging when we have not lived up to these values in some cases. The hiring process regarding this employee that took place three years ago is deeply regrettable and not as thorough as it should have been.” The statement also said, “As part of this culture change, VA is working hard to hold employees accountable while providing appropriate due process, and enforce better standards of acceptable performance.”
Personnel records do not cite the specific reason for Fillingim’s resignation in November 2010, five months after the fatal incident in Dallas.