SALISBURY, NC (WBTV) – A female employee at the Salisbury VA Medical Center reported being sexually harassed last year but the facility’s senior leadership did not take appropriate action to stop the harassment, according to findings of a VA hearing officer.
The findings and other information about the case are included in internal VA documents obtained and reviewed by WBTV.
According to the documents, a woman who worked as a care provider at the Salisbury VAMC reported being sexually harassed by Dr. Parag Dalsania, the associate chief of staff at the Salisbury VAMC.
Among the incidents of harassment detailed in a memo outlining findings of the director of the VA’s Office of Employment Discrimination Complaint Adjudication, was a business dinner with the woman and other colleagues.
“What kind of dildo do you use?” the hearing officer described Dalsania as asking the woman.
Harassment continued despite reports to leadership
According to the memo from the hearing officer, the woman reported the harassment to senior VA leadership, including Chief of Staff Subbarao Pemmaraju, but, substantively, nothing changed as a result of her reports.
“After being informed of the harassment, the Chief of Staff failed to take effective action to guarantee that it would not reoccur,” the hearing officer’s memo said.
Instead, the hearing officer found, the woman was still assigned to work on projects with Dalsania and was forced to find ways to avoid Dalsania in the office, including taking back stairs.
The hearing officer found Pemmaraju failed to require Dalsania to take remedial EEO training and only issued a reprimand for the incident. The hearing officer concluded Dalsania should have faced a tougher punishment, including removal.
“I note that while the Associate Chief of Staff was previously reprimanded for his conduct in this case, that discipline was not commensurate with his behavior nor the VA’s Core Values. Given that his conduct led to a finding of hostile work environment sexual harassment, I recommend that he be removed,” the hearing officer wrote.
“I further recommend that the Chief of Staff, who failed to effectively prevent further sexual harassment of the Complainant, be demoted to a non-supervisory position,” the hearing officer wrote.
The hearing officer’s findings were attached to and summarized in a letter sent by Peter O’Rourke, the Acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs, to senior leadership within the Veterans Health Administration in early July.
The letter directs officials within the VHA—including the director of the Salisbury VAMC, Joseph Vaughn, and DeAnne Seekins, who serves as director of VISN6, the VHA’s regional office that includes Salisbury—to review the findings of the OEDCA hearing officer and take disciplinary action against Dalsania and Pemmaraju.
Salisbury, regional leaders avoid taking recommended disciplinary action
O’Rourke’s letter directs leadership to report what action, if any, was taken within 60 days.
But now, more than 120 days since the letter from O’Rourke outlining the hearing officer’s findings, leadership at VISN6 and the Salisbury VAMC have yet to take any additional action.
In fact, emails reviewed by WBTV show Vaughn and Seekins got advice from a VA attorney on how they could justify not taking any additional disciplinary action against Dalsania and no action against Pemmaraju.
Specifically, the attorney’s email outlined, leadership could say it was unable to take additional action against Dalsania because he had already been disciplined when he received the reprimand from Pemmaraju; disciplinary action that the hearing officer found was not severe enough.
That argument doesn’t hold up for Roger French, a former VA human resources manager who spent nearly four decades with the agency before retiring. He now works as a consultant to federal employees who want to report wrongdoing within the VA and other government agencies.
“They do the wrong thing so that the person becomes insulated and the right thing to do can’t be done because it will violate ‘double jeopardy,’” French said.
French said the conduct in this case clearly warranted a severe punishment.
“The immediate supervisor should have taken the action to discipline—in this case, remove—for egregious comments and conduct,” French said. “And anybody in that supervisory chain above that who didn’t make sure that occurred should be removed.”
WBTV requested an interview with Vaughn, the Salisbury VAMC Director, Pemmaraju, Dalsania and O’Rourke, who is no longer Acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs but continues to work at the VA in an advisory role.
A spokeswoman for the VA refused requests for an interview and, instead, sent the following statement:
“VA does not tolerate harassment of any kind. In this case, the responsible employee was disciplined.”
In issuing the statement, the VA ignored detailed points raised by a WBTV reporter regarding the hearing officer’s determination that the disciplinary action taken against Dalsania was insufficient and, also, that Pemmaraju should have been removed from a supervisory role.
Both men remain in their leadership positions at the Salisbury VAMC.
Failure to act has been costly for the VA
French, the veteran human resources manager, said the case involving Dalsania and Pemmaraju at the Salisbury VAMC is typical of what happens within the VA.
In addition to being bad for employee morale, the VA’s failure to properly handle employee complaints can be costly.
“Employees are demoralized nationwide,” French said.
The VA reported spending $5,470,906.76 to settle EEO cases with employees between January 20 and December 31, 2017.
French said money spent by the VA to settle employee complaints means fewer dollars that can be spent to care for veterans.
“This is criminal because veterans are being denied what they’re owed,” French said. “The cash register is continuing to ring up dollars, public funds, that are being paid out to help the victim and that’s a waste of taxpayer funds.”