Top VA doctor still on the job despite recommendation, pledge for removal after sexual harassment scandal

Updated: Jul. 29, 2019 at 10:35 AM EDT
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SALISBURY, N.C. (WBTV) - The top doctor at the Salisbury VA Medical Center is still in his supervisory role, months after a WBTV investigation exposed a recommendation that he be removed from any supervisory position of his mishandling of a sexual assault claim.

Subbarao Pemmaraju is the chief of staff at the Salisbury VAMC.

Last year, a hearing officer at the VA tasked with hearing cases of potential employment discrimination found Pemmaraju failed to take adequate steps to stop reported sexual harassment and failed to properly discipline a subordinate who had been credibly accused of sexual harassment, internal VA documents obtained by WBTV showed.

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.

Previous: Doctors removed from supervisory positions at Salisbury VA after WBTV investigation

“What kind of dildo do you use?” the hearing officer described Dalsania as asking the woman.

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.

Other internal documents obtained by WBTV show Joseph Vaughn, the Salisbury VAMC Director, and the VA’s regional director over the medical center, DeAnne Seekins, consulted with an attorney on ways to justify not disciplining Pemmaraju after the EEO recommendation.

But after WBTV’s first story aired last November, employees were told Pemmaraju would be removed from his role as Chief of Staff.

Despite that, multiple sources confirm to WBTV that Pemmaraju is still in his leadership role.

He is still listed as the chief of staff on the medical center’s website and the internal VA email system still lists him as chief of staff.

Previous: Documents show VA leadership failed to stop sexual harassment at Salisbury VA

Three Saslibury VAMC staff have called WBTV in the past month to report Pemmaraju still working in a senior leadership capacity.

Vaughn, the medical center director, has refused to offer an explanation as to why Pemmaraju is still in a senior leadership role, despite the EEO hearing officer’s recommendation and despite his earlier pledge to act in the wake of WBTV’s first investigation.

A spokeswoman for Vaughn declined to make him available for an interview for this story and, instead, issued a brief statement that did not address the question at all.

“VA does not tolerate harassment of any kind. In this case, the responsible employee was disciplined,” spokeswoman Marlous Black said, rehashing the same two sentence statement issued in response to WBTV’s first request for comment last fall.

The spokeswoman did not respond to a follow-up email pointing out that the statement did not address Pemmaraju’s continued role as chief of staff.

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