VA Medical Center worker targeted amid volunteer program upheaval
As scandals swirl around the Department of Veterans Affairs and investigators look for evidence of cover-ups and cooking the books at 26 VA medical facilities nationwide, morale has slumped in one office at the North Las Vegas VA Medical Center. Quarrels involving a North Las Vegas VA Medical Center staff member and volunteers with the Voluntary Services chief have erupted into profanity-laced exchanges, physical threats and allegations of fudging donation reports.
May 24, 2014 - 9:41 pm
As scandals swirl around the Department of Veterans Affairs and investigators look for evidence of cover-ups and cooking the books at 26 VA medical facilities nationwide, morale has slumped in one office at the North Las Vegas VA Medical Center.
Quarrels involving a staff member and volunteers with Voluntary Services Chief Karen Cinnamon have erupted into profanity-laced exchanges, physical threats and allegations of fudging donation reports.
Documents obtained by the Las Vegas Review-Journal show problems simmered last year and eclipsed a period when veterans complained of long waits for care at the $1 billion facility.
“It seems to me that there is no accountability. Management is protecting management,” said the staff member, Matthew A. Boles, a hearing-impaired VA employee whose title is program support assistant for voluntary service.
“And when an employee comes to the management with a problem, they are ridiculed, made to be untrustworthy or the best term that they like to use is ‘lack of candor,’ ” Boles said in an interview May 14, three days before he received a certified letter from a VA manager to answer a list of allegations for his proposed firing.
Boles’ issue with Cinnamon isn’t about secret waiting lists like what is under investigation at VA facilities in Phoenix and two dozen other places.
Instead it is about his claims of how Cinnamon treated her staff and volunteers who work with veterans service organizations to collect donated items such as clothing, food and hygiene kits for homeless veterans and bring in monetary donations from the community to pay rent and utility bills for veterans who are struggling financially.
Since Cinnamon was transferred to Las Vegas from Pittsburgh when the medical center opened in August 2012, donations have plummeted from nearly $1.5 million collected under the leadership of her predecessor, Roy Kekahuna, to about $600,000 last year with only $27,000 projected for this year.
And the number of volunteers who work at the hospital and satellite clinics and shuttle disabled veterans to appointments from distant locations in Laughlin, Pahrump and Mesquite has dropped from 1,200 to 800, according to volunteer leaders.
BOLES SPEAKS OUT
Despite fear of retaliation, Boles spoke openly May 14 about Cinnamon’s alleged verbal abuse and mistreatment of staff and volunteers.
Boles, 42, was put on administrative leave after a confrontation April 30 when Cinnamon started yelling at him while loading boxes of body wash into a vehicle to take to homeless veterans.
“I became scared and Ms. Cinnamon raised her hand about to hit me,” he wrote in a note to Charles W. Lemle, chief of the Environmental Management Service Line.
“I told her don’t hit me and step away,” Boles wrote, adding, “This is the second time this has occurred and third time that Ms. Cinnamon has displayed anger or intended violence towards a member of the VA and has been reported to upper management.”
Boles noted that Cinnamon yelled, saying “who (expletive) told you to do that, who did you (expletive) give that (expletive) too (sic), I’m the only one to tell you.”
Boles’ note describes another instance when “Cinnamon raised her hand like a gun to me, like shooting me, and stated, ‘Why do you come to work(?)’ … Myself and other staff are scared for our safety here at work.”
Boles said the first threatening episode happened Nov. 13 about the time he and a public affairs specialist were finalizing plans for the drive-up flu shot event. This time, Boles and another medical media person were waiting for Cinnamon to show up for a meet-and-greet with a group who had come to serve cookies and milk to veterans and donate five $25 Mastercard gift cards for veterans.
Cinnamon failed to make the meet-and-greet but showed up later at her office, Boles wrote in an email to Associate Director John Stelsel, saying that Cinnamon “used the words ‘I am going to kill you.’ ”
“Cinnamon became more hostile and used more profanity. Ms. Cinnamon started blaming me and saying ‘you’re not a (expletive) event planner and you’re nothing, but my (expletive), and I (expletive) tell you what to do. And (expletive) you and your P.R. buddy,” Boles’ email reads.
During the afternoon of Nov. 13, Cinnamon left the office to work in a facilities office downstairs and didn’t return to Voluntary Services until Feb. 10, according to Boles.
Despite his complaint, Cinnamon went back to work at her old job in February. Boles said managers told him there wasn’t enough evidence to keep her away.
When Boles and a co-worker asked for transfers, they were denied.
But, on March 14, Director Isabel Duff issued Boles a letter advising him of his whistle-blower rights to report any safety concerns.
“We assure you we will not take disciplinary action against you for making a protected (whistle-blower) disclosure,” Duff wrote.
Yet, two months later Boles was targeted for firing for using obscene language to a supervisor. He admits that obscene words “did slip out. … I want to make it clear that it was the result of 10 months of verbal abuse and nothing else.”
A request to a VA spokesman to interview Cinnamon was declined. The spokesman, Richard Beam, did, however, issue a response to a query.
He declined comment on personnel matters. “However, we hold all our employees accountable to the same standards and follow the same due processes when addressing employment. That same process will be applied to both Ms. Cinnamon and Mr. Boles equally,” Beam said.
He said the Voluntary Services program is being revamped.
“We recognize some of our volunteers will no longer wish to continue to serve with us,” Beam said, noting that under Cinnamon the volunteer force has grown from 957 in 2012 to 1,061 in 2013.
Boles said the number of volunteers represents how many signed up but most of them aren’t active. “Only about 300 or so are currently doing hours,” he said.
Boles’ claims of Cinnamon’s foul-language tirades were backed up by a former office volunteer, two staff members and two service organization representatives. They included Judy Smith, one of seven volunteers who quit under Cinnamon’s reign.
“I don’t understand how a manager can threaten to kill someone and still be employed, government employee or not,” Smith said Wednesday, noting she was surprised Boles was placed on administrative leave. “It’s no wonder the VA is in the situation it’s in.”
Her comments came hours after President Barack Obama held a White House news conference to address lack-of-accountability concerns in the VA.
“Any misconduct whether it’s allegations of VA staff covering up long wait times or cooking the books, I will not stand for it,” Obama said.
Although he was referring to the ongoing probe into secret waiting lists, he was not specific when he said, “anybody found to have manipulated or falsified records at VA facilities has to be held accountable.”
Jim McCawley, commander of Catholic War Veterans Post 1947 in Las Vegas, said an annual report on local donations for the VA’s national office contains bookkeeping errors.
After he first saw the report, he met with Cinnamon in February 2013 and asked her to correct the entry for his group’s furniture donation of $133,867.56 that had been recorded three times under three different identification numbers. The two additional entries plus similar multiple recordings of donations for $76,998.09 and $9,966.14 had made it appear that donations for 2013 were roughly $400,000 more than they actually were.
When he received a copy of the report three weeks ago, the inflated figures had not been corrected.
“She said she was going to do it, but undoubtedly didn’t,” McCawley said, adding that he is concerned about the inflated figures “No. 1. And, No. 2, she’s micromanaging. She cut out our volunteer programs.”
Beam said the 2013 annual donations report “reflects a deduction of approximately $422,155.97 as compared with the previous year. That difference was to make adjustments for donations that may have been inaccurately reported prior to Ms. Cinnamon” coming on board.
Beam said this year’s report will reflect a difference of more than $400,000.
“Those comments were to account for inaccurate duplicative reporting of donations. The official report … does not reflect any known duplication of donations,” Beam said.
McCawley said Cinnamon no longer would allow volunteers to declare volunteer-hour credits for working outside VA facilities without VA supervision. He said that means her office won’t honor service hours and donations from the Catholic War Veterans’ efforts to collect donations from poppy drives on Memorial Day and Veterans Day, or from booths the organization sets up four times a year at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
He said Cinnamon’s interpretation of VA rules differs from his view. “The way we interpret it, if it was done in the furtherance of helping a veteran, then it’s allowed,” McCawley said.
Similarly, Veterans of Foreign Wars State Commander Rob Garlow said his organization and other nonprofit veterans service groups have had disputes with Cinnamon. They range from distributing donations to a restriction on food vouchers for volunteers that can be redeemed only at the VA Medical Center’s cafeteria. So, it would not be worth the drive from Pahrump, for example, to use the vouchers.
“It’s been kind of a trying time since she’s been here,” Garlow said. “Basically, when she came in she said, ‘I’m the one in charge and you work for me.’ ”
Collectively, he said, service groups had “ramped up” the volunteer force to about 1,200 in anticipation of the medical center’s opening.
“Since she’s been here we are now down around 800; we’ve lost quite a few,” Garlow said. “It’s not easy for us to get volunteers but they’re not being treated the way they should be.”
Asked how he’d rate the morale at the VA Voluntary Services office on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 excellent and 1 very poor, Garlow said, “Right now it’s down to about 2. You used to walk in there and people were happy and smiling and stuff.
“They’ve had trouble trying to keep people on the desk. It’s easier to work with someone if they’re not saying it’s my way or the highway.”
Contact Keith Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0308. Find him on Twitter: @KeithRogers2.