Tillis responds to WBTV investigation of VA harassment complaint

Updated: Nov. 21, 2018 at 6:53 PM EST
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SALISBURY, NC (WBTV) - United States Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) issued a statement following a WBTV investigation into the handling of a sexual harassment complaint made by a female employee at the Salisbury VA Medical Center.

The investigation, which was based on internal documents obtained by the station, revealed a VA hearing officer found leaders at Salisbury VAMC failed to take effective action to stop the harassment. Other documents showed the director of the Salisbury VAMC, Joseph Vaughn, and VISN 6 Director DeAnne Seekins failed to remove the doctor accused of harassment, Associate Chief of Staff Parag Dalsania, and his immediate supervisor, Chief of Staff Subbarao Pemmaraju, as recommended by a VA EEO hearing officer.

Tillis' office issued a statement following WBTV’s investigation that said the following:

“Employees and veterans at the VA deserve to be treated with respect, and when misconduct occurs appropriate disciplinary action must be taken. Senator Tillis and his staff will be following up with VA leaders in the state and central office to learn more about this incident and find out what steps are being taken to ensure proper accountability measures are in place.”

Separately, WBTV has obtained an email sent by Vaughn, the director of the Salisbury VAMC, to hospital employees reacting to the story.

The email, with the subject line “Negative News", pushed back on the station’s findings and said he would only focus on positive stories done about the Salisbury VA.

“Many of you have probably seen or heard about the negative news story yesterday evening. I want to assure each and every person on our team that I do take sexual harassment very seriously and what you saw yesterday was only part of the story. Appropriate action was taken, and will always be taken, in a case of sexual harassment. My expectation is that all of us will continue to provide exceptional customer service, not only to the Veterans we serve, but to each other treating each other with dignity and respect. I have complete confidence in our leadership team and believe our system accomplishes great things every single day. I’m focusing on the many positive things that I hear and see about the work we do and hope you will do the same.”

Vaughn’s email did not provide details about what, specifically, was missing from WBTV’s story.

From L-R: Joseph Vaughn, Subbarao Pemmaraju and DeAnne Seekins
From L-R: Joseph Vaughn, Subbarao Pemmaraju and DeAnne Seekins

Nor did Vaughn’s email provide support for the assertion that “appropriate action was taken.”

A VA EEO hearing officer found the opposite.

“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, the chief of staff, failed to require Dalsania, the doctor accused of sexual harassment, 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.

Instead of taking the action recommended by the hearing officer, emails reviewed by WBTV show Vaughn and Seekins, the VISN 6 Director, got advice from a VA attorney on ways to justify not taking additional action.

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