VA needs Atlanta-like treatment

Rory E. Riley
Rory E. Riley

Accountability means a willingness to accept responsibility for one’s actions. It means that individuals, particularly those trusted with helping a vulnerable segment of our population, are willing to answer for the outcomes resulting from their actions, choices and behavior. Whether it involves disadvantaged, urban students or our nation’s disabled veterans, there is simply no excuse for unethical behavior. Those who choose to violate the public’s trust must be held accountable.

In 2008, the Atlanta Journal Constitution published a series of stories that raised serious questions about students’ performance on standardized tests. The reports prompted the governor to call for a special investigation despite school officials’ protests. In July 2011, the governor’s investigation resulted in a 413-page report that revealed a culture of cheating and data manipulation to meet unrealistic goals set by school officials. It also revealed that many teachers profited from their behavior by receiving monetary bonuses for students’ purported performance improvements.

What happened in Atlanta is unacceptable. On April 1, 10 out of the 11 teachers on trial were found guilty of racketeering and other charges. Almost immediately after the verdicts were read, the former teachers were handcuffed and taken into custody, sending a strong signal throughout Atlanta and the rest of the country that cheating at the expense of underprivileged students will not be tolerated. When the guilty defendants pled for sympathy, Fulton County Judge Jerry Baxter was not persuaded, stating only that “They have made their bed and they’re going to have to lie in it, and it starts today.”

By contrast, for the past year, a similar data manipulation scandal has plagued the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Last April, at a hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., raised serious allegations that at least 40 veterans had died while waiting for medical care at the Phoenix VA Medical Center. Shortly thereafter, CNN, in conjunction with Dr. Sam Foote, a whistleblower from the Phoenix VA Medical Center, reported that patients were placed on “secret wait lists” designed to hide lengthy delays from VA officials in Washington. As the scandal continued to unfold, it was revealed that, similar to what was found in Atlanta, a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation pressured many into believing that cheating and manipulating data were the only way to appease senior officials who had set unrealistic goals. Likewise, some even further manipulated data to receive robust performance bonuses and promotions.

Although the issues plaguing the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs are at least as serious as those involved in the Atlanta teachers cheating scandal, the main difference is that, to this day, no one at the VA has been held accountable. No VA employee has gone to jail, despite the fact that disabled veterans have died. Rather, numerous VA officials have been allowed to retire with full-government benefits, transfer to a different VA facility, or voluntarily resign. Most notoriously, Sharon Helman, the former-director of the VA Medical Center in Phoenix, was allowed to collect pay for nearly seven months while she was placed on administrative leave. Helman was ultimately fired not for the data manipulation that resulted in veterans dying on her watch, but for accepting gifts from a lobbyist.

Regardless of industry, human nature dictates that people will do what they are incentivized to do. Accountability is essential because without it, dishonest practices will corrupt that process. The VA must send a message by taking accountability seriously, as Judge Baxter did in Atlanta. If the VA continues to dodge true accountability, the only ones who will suffer are our nation’s veterans.

Rory E. Riley of Charlotte is staff attorney at the National Veterans Legal Services Program in Washington. These opinions are her own. She can be reached at