Ex-Phoenix VA Official Pleads Guilty to Taking Gifts, Gets Probation

This undated handout photo provided by The Veterans Affairs Department, shows Sharon Helman, director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System. (AP Photo/Veterans Affairs Department)
This undated handout photo provided by The Veterans Affairs Department, shows Sharon Helman, director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System. (AP Photo/Veterans Affairs Department)

The former Phoenix VA hospital director who was fired following revelations that patients died while waiting for appointments has pleaded guilty to not disclosing she took gifts from a lobbyist.

Sharon Helman, who became the face of the VA wait-times scandal in 2014, on Tuesday pleaded guilty to filing a false financial disclosure that failed to list more than $50,000 in gifts she received from a lobbyist. She was sentenced to probation.

The VA fired Helman after it came to light that dozens of veterans seeking appointments at the Phoenix medical center were kept on a secret waitlist and died before getting an appointment. Subsequent investigations concluded the lists intended to conceal the scope of the problem, which was found to be systemic across the department.

Helman appealed her firing to the Merit Systems Protection Board, which upheld the termination in December 2014 but not because of the wait-list scandal. It ruled her firing was justified because she took gifts from a lobbyist friend and former supervisor who was representing a vendor. That gift-taking prompted an investigation by the FBI and the charge brought by Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona Frank T. Galati, to which she pleaded guilty.

The Justice Department said Helman has been sentenced to probation but did not describe the terms. The conviction could have resulted in a five-year prison sentence, it said in a statement.

FBI Acting Special Agent in Charge Mark Cwynar said Helman's pleading guilty to the felony charge "will permanently attach to Ms. Helman's legacy," while Michael E. Seitler, special agent in charge for the VA's Office of the Inspector General, said the prosecution "holds Ms. Helman accountable."

But Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee that conducted numerous hearings into the secret wait lists, criticized what he said was a light sentence.

"I'm extremely puzzled as to why the Department of Justice chose to coddle her with a sweetheart plea deal that amounts to nothing more than a weak slap on the wrist," Miller said in a statement. "Such extraordinary leniency is an insult to the many veterans who suffered from the malfeasance and mismanagement of the Phoenix VA Health Care System."

Miller also took the opportunity to note that no official with the Phoenix VA center has been successfully disciplined for the wait-times manipulation. He also said VA has yet to discipline officials there who retaliated against whistleblowers who exposed problems at the center.

The gifts to Helman included airline and concert tickets. Helman accepted tickets for a Beyoncé concert, Chang's Rock & Roll Arizona Marathon, the Mississippi Blues Marathon and an eight-night stay at Disney World. The family trip to Disneyland cost $11,000, according to the MSPB ruling.

The gifts were provided by Dennis "Max" Lewis, vice president of Jefferson Consulting Group, a consultant for a healthcare company wanting to do business with the VA facilities' community-based outpatient clinics.

Lewis had once been a senior executive for the VA and was Helman's boss at one time.

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bryantjordan.

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