Ousted VA Official Received Gifts from Consultant Who Was Her Ex-Boss

Sharon Helman, who was recently fired as director of the VA hospital in Phoenix, stands with her onetime boss, Max Lewis (right), and another former VA official, Nathan Geraths (left) in this 2011 agency photo.
Sharon Helman, who was recently fired as director of the VA hospital in Phoenix, stands with her onetime boss, Max Lewis (right), and another former VA official, Nathan Geraths (left) in this 2011 agency photo.

The consultant who provided fired Veterans Affairs hospital director Sharon Helman with thousands of dollars in gifts, including an all-expense paid trip to Disneyland, is a retired VA executive who had once been her boss.

Dennis "Max" Lewis was in charge of a part of the VA called the Veterans Integrated Network System 20, which oversees healthcare for the northwestern U.S. and Alaska, when Helman ran the agency hospital in Walla Walla, Washington.

Helman most recently was the director of the agency's Phoenix medical center during a time in which it was found to have manipulated waiting lists and other patient data to hide the fact that veterans faced delays in receiving care. However, it was her willingness to accept gifts from Lewis that ultimately cost Helman her job.

The federal Merit System Protections Board, which reviewed the claims against Helman when she appealed her firing, revealed the lavish gifts in a report last week that validated the agency's decision to fire her.

Giving the gifts also cost Lewis his job as a vice president with Jefferson Consulting Group in Washington, D.C. The company fired him in late November or early December, company President and Chief Executive Officer Julie Susman told Military.com. 

"Jefferson [Consulting] did not request, authorize or pay for any gifts from Mr. Lewis to Ms. Helman, and Jefferson was not aware of any gifts until it learned of them from the government's investigation," Susman said. "Our understanding is that any such gifts ... were intended to be personal in nature based on their pre-existing relationship."

Susman said she fired Lewis once she learned that the board handling Helman's appeal substantiated reports of the gift-giving, which was a violation of the company's ethics policy.

She said she told investigators the company "is more than happy" to cooperate with any further investigation.

Lewis was sending Helman on trips to pop and blues concerts around the country and picking up an $11,000 tab for a family trip to Disneyland while working at Jefferson, where he represented a healthcare company looking to do business with community-based veterans' outpatient clinics overseen by the Phoenix VA hospital.

After retiring from the agency in 2009, Lewis worked for Sinclair Advisory of Pittsburgh, which then contracted him back to the VA as an advisor and consultant. About a year ago, Sinclair was the subject of a Pittsburgh Tribune article that looked at its frequent hiring of retired VA officials, who then went back to the department as consultants.

Before joining Jefferson Consulting, Lewis worked for McConnell International in Washington, DC, another company that routinely wins government contracts. He also worked briefly for Siemens Government Technologies in Crystal City, Virginia.

Military.com was unable to reach Lewis.

So far, the VA has fired few people in connection with the wait-list scandal, but has set itself a July 2015 deadline for disciplining culpable employees.

Agency officials wouldn't comment on Monday when asked about reports that a whistleblower briefed executives, including former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, about problems at Phoenix well before the wait-times issue came to light through media reports.

Susan Bowers, who oversaw dozens of VA hospital and clinics across the southwest part of the country, told investigators that she began briefing Shinseki and others about the Phoenix problems in 2009.

The VA also declined to say whether any additional investigations are underway to determine if Lewis provided Helman with gifts prior to her posting in Phoenix.

"It would be inappropriate to speculate on the potential actions of other agencies in this matter," according to a statement. "The Department of Veterans Affairs will continue to cooperate with all investigations and will hold employees accountable while ensuring due process."

Update: An earlier version of this story reported that Lewis' online resume at ZoomInfo.com indicated he currently worked for Siemens Government Technologies. The company said he left Siemens in 2013.

-- Associate Editor Bryant Jordan can be reached at Bryant.Jordan@Military.com.

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