Women Claim Sexual Harassment, Retaliation and Cover-up at the Colorado VA
There was a time last summer when Andrea Carter thought she'd found her dream job.
A certified nursing assistant and phlebotomist, Carter began working in June at an Aurora outpatient clinic operated by the Department of Veterans Affairs. She was a contract employee, meaning that she worked for a private agency that supplied skilled help rather than for the VA itself, but the work was satisfying just the same. There was much more interaction with patients than at her previous assignments, and she enjoyed it a great deal.
"I lifted the vets up, and they lifted me up as well," she says. "I loved being at the Aurora clinic. That was my happiness."
In Carter's view, there was only one drawback to the job: a male registered nurse whose behavior made her increasingly uncomfortable. Wade was known as the clinic's prankster, and his off-color jokes and sex talk were regarded by some workers as harmless amusement, while others found him a bit much. (Sample: "Do you have a little Irish in you? [Pause.] Would you like one?") But the man was one of Carter's supervisors, and she didn't care for him quizzing her about her sex life and sending her vulgar texts and e-mails.
"I think you need attention," Wade wrote to her in an e-mail last July. Carter responded, asking what sort of attention he was talking about. Wade shot back: "Loud oral satisfying attention, got an Idea what I'm talking about?"
The message ended with an emoticon, one with a wide-open "O" for a mouth.
Over the next few weeks, Carter had what she describes as several unpleasant encounters with Wade. On occasion he would come up to her desk, ostensibly to show her something on the computer, and press his crotch against her shoulder or arm. But Carter was reluctant to report his advances.
"I felt like, If I report this, I'm going to be terminated," she says. "There's going to be some sort of retaliation. Because I'm a contract employee, they're going to put me on a 'Do not send' list."
The situation escalated further in early August. Carter was sitting outside the clinic after lunch, taking a cigarette break on a bench, when Wade approached her -- "smelling of an alcohol beverage," according to the letter of complaint Carter later submitted to the VA's associate chief of nursing for the eastern Colorado district. He "explained that he 'would love to have oral sex with me with my legs above his shoulders'.... I became very uncomfortable, and I explained that it was time we go back to work and he can take the elevator before me."
Later that day, Carter says, Wade approached her from behind in a procedure room and began kissing her neck and asking for oral sex. She grabbed him by the arm and pulled him out of the room, telling him emphatically to leave her alone.
Four days later, a supervisor approached Carter after a staff meeting and told her that plans were in the works to transfer her to the main VA hospital in Aurora because the clinic was "overstaffed." The plan made no sense to Carter, who knew that the clinic was shorthanded, not overstaffed; she was filling in for a licensed practical nurse who was on maternity leave.
But talking to other employees, Carter soon learned that Wade -- who'd been curt and short-tempered with her since the grapple in the procedure room -- had apparently been pushing for her transfer. Upset, Carter sought out a young medical assistant named Brittani Harris, another contract employee who worked for the same firm.
Andrea Carter was told conflicting stories about why she was being removed from her job at a Veterans Affairs outpatient clinic after reporting sexual harassment by a male nurse.
"I know exactly what this is about," Carter said, and proceeded to tell Harris about her problems with Wade.
Harris nodded. Soon she was telling Carter about her own problems with Wade. Back in April, Harris said, she was alone in the lab with Wade when suddenly he reached into her pants and yanked on her underwear, giving her a wedgie. She'd laughed nervously, but the experience had left her confused and frightened; had she done something to make him think that was okay? A week later, he approached her again in the lab, and she put her arm out and told him not to touch her. But she never told anyone about the incident, out of fear of losing her job.
Despite concerns about possible blowback, Carter and Harris decided it was time to report the harassment and unwanted physical contact to their superiors. Carter also filed a report with the VA police. Three other women soon came forward, filing their own complaints about Wade's behavior and comments.
The situation at the Aurora clinic seemed like a throwback to another era, when sexual badinage with, and pawing of, female subordinates was widely considered a kind of droit du seigneur for male bosses -- the kind of thing you'd expect to find in a trucking-company office in 1964, not a rule-riddled federal agency in 2014. To some of the complainants, the case also appeared to have racial overtones: Wade is white, while four of the five women who signed formal complaints against him are African-American. Strange as the allegations were, though, the investigation that followed was even stranger.
Wade, who denied any wrongdoing, no longer works at the clinic. But neither do Harris or Carter. Technically speaking, the VA didn't fire them, because they never worked directly for the agency, but their removal from the clinic was an immediate result of having reported the harassment -- just as they'd feared it would be. Two other women who filed complaints, both VA employees, have been, in effect, demoted -- assigned to new duties pending the conclusion of a top-secret internal investigation into the matter that, five months after the accusations were first made, has yet to be resolved.
Attorney Patricia Bangert, who represents a total of six women who worked at the clinic, says the VA's harassment investigation has evolved into a campaign of retaliation against the alleged victims. For the most part, her clients haven't been allowed to have a lawyer present during interviews with investigators -- who, Bangert says, have accused the women of lying, pressured them to change their stories, and generally dismissed their accounts as not credible. Staff at the clinic have been warned not to discuss the allegations even with their families, Bangert adds, or face disciplinary action; they have also been instructed not to disclose Wade's identity to anyone because of supposed privacy concerns. One VA official even accused Bangert of "meddling and unabashed tampering" with a federal investigation for daring to "illicit [sic] information" from one of her own clients.
"I have never had an agency retaliate so blatantly," says Bangert, who specializes in work-related harassment, discrimination and civil-rights cases. "They're just trying to make the issue go away and intimidate these women into saying that what happened didn't happen."
VA officials declined to comment on specific aspects of the investigation. In a written statement, the agency declared that it's committed to enforcing federal laws and denies taking any punitive actions against the alleged victims: "Retaliation against individuals for whistleblowing, opposing discrimination, or participating in the discrimination-complaint process is unlawful and will not be tolerated." The statement acknowledges that employees were told not to discuss the issue "outside of their immediate chain of command" and says they were cautioned against providing false information, not pressured to change their stories.
Bangert has taken her concerns about the VA's handling of the investigation to the agency's Office of Inspector General, only to receive a form letter stating that the OIG is "highly selective" in the complaints it chooses to investigate and receives far more than it has the resources to review. She also has sought out congressional representatives. "I am greatly concerned about the allegations of sexual harassment and retaliation towards those who spoke out at the Aurora VA outpatient facility," says Representative Mike Coffman. "The lack of a timely response from the OIG is greatly concerning to me. The OIG needs to investigate these serious allegations immediately."
A spokesperson for the OIG says her office doesn't deal with retaliation issues and refers complainants to the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal watchdog entity. Bangert has contacted the OSC, too.
But seeking yet another probe of what may be the most scandal-plagued, blundering operation in the entire federal bureaucracy could be tough going. The VA and its largest subsidiary, the Veterans Health Administration, are already under a nationwide investigation for failing to provide timely access to medical care to thousands of veterans. In Colorado, soaring construction costs of a new VA hospital in Aurora -- budgeted at $604 million, but inexplicably designed to cost around $1 billion -- have consumed a great deal of Coffman's time and attention.
Yet the allegations of intimidation and cover-up aren't isolated to the Aurora clinic, one of 25 VA facilities in the state. Last month a federal lawsuit was filed on behalf of a female VA employee at the Lakewood Veterans Service Center, outlining similar claims of harassment by a male supervisor who was supposedly "protected by management" and had been shifted from post to post in the wake of complaints. The plaintiff also claims to have faced retaliation after her complaint was filed. Bangert suspects that there are other, as-yet-unidentified victims of harassment at the Aurora clinic who have yet to come forward and that the agency's culture of silence around harassment issues has compromised patient care.
"It's not clear what they're investigating at this point," she says. "I just think the VA absolutely hates bad publicity. They're trying to intimidate employees, and they're not even bothering to disguise it."
The Aurora Veterans Affairs outpatient clinic.
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Before things blew up last summer, Wade had worked at the Aurora clinic for about a year and a half, and at other VA facilities for five years before that. During his time at the clinic, he told some of his co-workers tales of his exploits before arriving at the VA, but they weren't sure how much to believe -- stories about being trained in martial arts, serving in the military and getting into "many fights" and hurting people. At least two witnesses say he told them he had once beaten a man to death.
Cheryl Franklin was less concerned about Wade's colorful past than his present connections. He seemed quite friendly with the clinic's leadership, its top physician and manager and nursing supervisors, and Franklin didn't know how they would react to any complaints about him.
Franklin had arrived at the clinic around the same time as Wade. But she was a new hire, subject to a probationary period of review. Wade was one of several RNs who, on a rotating basis, served as the immediate supervisor of licensed practical nurses like Franklin. Because she needed her job, Franklin says, she put up with a lot from Wade that she wouldn't have tolerated otherwise -- until it all just got unbearable.
It started, she says, with the "little nasty jokes" Wade would tell her. Then he would compliment her in front of patients; if a vet said something about her raising his blood pressure, Wade would chime in, "I know what you mean. She does that to me, too."
She recalls that one day Wade told her to close her eyes, imagine a woman in front of her, and point to the woman's eyes, nose and navel. When Franklin got to the navel, Wade put her finger in his mouth. "I just wanted to see your reaction," he said.
It seemed to Franklin that Wade was hanging around her desk more and more. And finger-sucking was only the beginning. "Many occasions he would come over to me at my desk and kiss my neck," she wrote in her formal complaint. "He would come into the treatment room and come behind me and grab my waist into him and press up against me and kiss me on my neck or lick my ear. He would talk to me about his skills in martial arts, how he could really hurt someone and how he had purchased a gun.
"One day, leaving the facility, he walked with me down the stairs. At the end of the stairwell, he threw me up against the wall and kissed me, trying to put his tongue in my mouth. I was able to push him away."
Franklin says Wade ignored her protests and didn't seem worried that she might report him. She admits that she was reluctant to do so, having gotten a strong impression that Wade had allies in management who looked indulgently on his pranks and "flirtations." "I'm new," she says. "This person is an RN. There's no way they're going to listen to me when the doctors don't feel that what he's doing is inappropriate."
Franklin says she endured the situation for close to a year. Another woman, a medical-support assistant, had been at the clinic only a few days when she filed a complaint about several issues, including what she regarded as inappropriate comments and personal questions from Wade, who managed to physically bump into her on her second day on the job. When no one responded to her complaint, she went to work elsewhere.
But most of the women complaining of harassment wanted to hold on to their jobs at the clinic. It was only after some hesitation and discussion with family members that Harris and Carter each went to see a respected RN who'd worked for the VA for more than two decades -- and who, following VA policy, took the matter up the chain of command to the associate chief of nursing.
Just as Carter had contacted the VA police to file a report, so did Franklin -- but she says the federal police refused to take a second report. Even though a few of the actions the women described could be regarded as not simply harassment, but assault, authorities soon decided that the investigation should be administrative in nature, not criminal. Some of the women wondered if they should go to the Aurora police to seek a restraining order against Wade, given his boasts of black-belt prowess and of hurting people; the VA police advised against such a move, saying this was an internal matter.
Questioned by the VA police, Wade denied any inappropriate behavior. He said his interactions with Carter were "just flirting."
"She was being more inappropriate than I was," he insisted. "She was rubbing me in places, and I was just rubbing her arm, and she said that her husband had told her that I could screw her brains out."
Carter denies that any such conversation took place. "My husband would not approve of that whatsoever," she says. "All of [Wade's] statements were just really weird."
Wade was reassigned to another VA facility and subsequently resigned. According to the VA's statement on the case, he "will not be considered for future employment" with the agency.
(None of the alleged victims interviewed by Westword would divulge Wade's name, out of fears about disciplinary action from the VA for committing a "privacy violation." But Wade is not hard to find. His Facebook page teems with boob jokes, boasts about his personal-best bench press, and enthusiasm for the Denver Broncos, concealed-carry permits and his six grandchildren. He now works in the private sector and did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)
In any case, Wade's departure didn't mark the end of the agency's inquiry into the matter. Far from it. According to a statement by the RN who first took the women's complaints to management, it was soon made clear to her by Jason Douglas, a VA human resources official, that administrators weren't inclined to accept the women's accounts at face value.
"On August 19 we were called to a mandatory staff meeting," the statement declares. "At the meeting we were directed not to talk about the incidents with anyone, and Mr. Jason Douglas stated that the allegations were false. I stated how can you say the victims lied since an investigation has not been conducted. He ignored my statement and moved to threaten us with termination if he heard that this incident was continuing to be discussed....
"On October 21, 2014, I was removed from my nursing [position] and moved to Human Resources, directly below Mr. Jason Douglas's office. I have been told I'm not to speak to no one. On October 22, 2014, I was interrogated for two hours about the male RN. I told Mr. Douglas that I just reported the incidents; why am I [being] punished? I told him I reported what I reported, and that is all I knew. He said maybe I wasn't remembering correctly.... My lunch and break times are monitored. I'm answering phones instead of [providing] nursing care.... This is affecting patient care."
Attorney Patricia Bangert was told by one VA official that her clients would be committing a "privacy violation" if they discussed the harassment investigation with her.
After filing her police report, Andrea Carter found herself in a state of limbo with Loyal Source Government Services, the company that had placed her as a contract employee with the VA. LSGS put her on paid administrative leave for thirty days, noting in a letter that "you have stated that your work environment is a hostile and an unsafe environment."
The VA's position is that the agency had no role in Carter's removal. But Carter also has a recording of a phone conversation with a company supervisor, telling her that she was being taken out of the clinic because the VA had asked the company not to schedule her "until they completed their investigation." Carter says she's still listed as an LSGS employee, but the company's principal client in Colorado is the VA, and she hasn't worked since filing her harassment complaint in August.
"I don't know why they still have me on their roster as active, because they have no other jobs for me," Carter says. "They can't assign me anywhere. I think it's exclusively just so they can further interrogate me and pull me into interviews. If I were to quit, I can't receive unemployment benefits."
At one point, LSGS offered Carter a severance agreement that would pay her the equivalent of eight weeks of salary. But the agreement would have required her to not only waive all claims against her employer, but to agree to keep confidential "the facts and circumstances" leading to her termination -- meaning she could never say a word about the harassment she'd claimed.
"After I read it, I said, 'Oh, no,'" she says. "I'm not signing off my rights to pursue an investigation of this person. My EEOC counselor told me this has been going on since the day he started at the VA -- for seven years."
When Brittani Harris found out that LSGS would no longer schedule her for work at the VA, she asked a company rep how it felt to punish someone "who is a victim and trying to do the right thing." The rep insisted that the company did no such thing. Harris left LSGS and is now unemployed.
The women who worked directly for the VA found their job duties greatly altered in the wake of the harassment investigation. The RN who reported the complaints and then found herself assigned to answer phones has now been moved to a small basement room, where she works at office duties that have little to do with her nursing skills. "It's not like there are two sides to her story," attorney Bangert says. "It is simply a fact that she was taken out of patient care and put in a basement office, with no windows and locked doors, and forbidden to talk with anyone on pain of termination. And no one will tell her why. It reminds me of Kafka's The Trial."
LPN Cheryl Franklin has spent much of the past few months doing lab work she wasn't originally trained to do, work more suited to a medical assistant. Neither she nor any of the other VA employees have been allowed to have an attorney present during interview sessions with agency investigators; the agency maintains that only a union representative is permitted. Some of the interviewees describe the sessions as going on for hours and consisting chiefly of attacks on their credibility.
Franklin says she was told that she couldn't speak to her attorney on VA property and that she "didn't know what she was getting into." Her interrogator was antagonistic, insisted her interactions with Wade were consensual, and kept referring to notes that he wouldn't let her see. "He kept pointing to something that he said was evidence that I had visited [Wade] at his house," she recalls. "I told him that wasn't true. He just kept saying, 'That's not what I heard.'"
Bangert managed to attend one interview with Carter; that session lasted only a few minutes. Bangert contends that the VA's efforts to silence the women and get them to change their stories are in violation of whistleblower laws and the Civil Rights Act, as well as basic constitutional rights. In testy correspondence, she's clashed with VA human resources official Douglas over her right to represent her clients at interviews. Douglas has maintained that her clients may be committing a "privacy violation" if they discuss any aspect of the VA's investigation with their own lawyer.
"Having attended one interview, I can say with certainty that the interview was not a fact-finding exercise," Bangert wrote back. "Rather, it was a thinly-veiled attempt to pressure the victim of harassment and assault to change her testimony. I believe that you are hiding behind the fiction of an 'internal investigation' to intimidate and pressure employees to make false statements to cover up the misconduct at the VA, including threatening disciplinary action if they do not lie."
In a November 7, 2014, letter to the VA's Office of Inspector General, Bangert described how another client of hers, a senior nurse at the clinic, had witnessed officials cleaning out Wade's desk after he left and coming across a knife with a blade exceeding three inches -- an item not permitted on VA property. "The nurse, as required, reported the finding of the knife," Bangert noted. "This morning, a VA official...told the nurse that she either had to sign a statement saying that there was no knife found or seen, or she would be fired. This puts the nurse in a completely untenable situation in which she either had to commit perjury or lose her job.... This demand was witnessed and can be confirmed by a union representative."
Bangert says the nurse hasn't changed her story and is still employed at the VA. The investigation seems to have been shifted to a new team in recent weeks, possibly because of pressure from Coffman's office, which Bangert says has been receptive to her protests about the VA's bullying tactics. But it's still not clear where the investigation is headed or when it will be concluded.
"I asked them what more they were investigating, and I was told it was taken out of their hands," says one of the women who complained of harassment. "I am not a threat to anybody, so I don't understand why I am not back at my old job."
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