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Pittsburgh VA leaders won't face federal charges in deadly Legionnaires' outbreak

- Chlorine treatments meant to stop dangerous bacteria that can lead to Legionnaires’ disease are eating away metal pipes across the Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare’s plumbing system, threatening long-term damage that could cost millions to correct, an independent evaluation shows.
Chlorine treatments meant to stop dangerous bacteria that can lead to Legionnaires’ disease are eating away metal pipes across the Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare’s plumbing system, threatening long-term damage that could cost millions to correct, an independent evaluation shows.
AP - The front of the Veterans Affairs hospital in Pittsburgh is seen on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013. An outbreak suspected of sickening 21 veterans and killing five might have infected an untold number of other Pittsburgh VA patients with Legionnaires’ disease, which can go undetected without special tests, pathologists warned on Wednesday. AP file photo
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>AP</em></div>The front of the Veterans Affairs hospital in Pittsburgh is seen on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013. An outbreak suspected of sickening 21 veterans and killing five might have infected an untold number of other Pittsburgh VA patients with Legionnaires’ disease, which can go undetected without special tests, pathologists warned on Wednesday. AP file photo

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By Mike Wereschagin, Luis Fábregas and Adam Smeltz
Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013, 11:45 a.m.
 

Federal prosecutors will not charge anyone with a crime in connection with a deadly Legionnaires' disease outbreak at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, but top Department of Veterans Affairs officials may act against administrators or workers who failed to prevent the tragedy.

U.S. Attorney David Hickton said on Thursday a nine-month investigation by his office, the FBI and VA's Office of Inspector General failed to turn up any criminal wrongdoing.

“While the federal criminal investigation has concluded, consideration of the many issues raised by this tragic event will surely continue in other forums,” Hickton said in a statement. He would not answer questions.

VA spokesmen in Pittsburgh and Washington did not respond to requests for comment.

“While I understand that there are no criminal charges being filed, that does not change the importance of holding the VA accountable,” said Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Scranton.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki told Congress that he would not discipline employees until Hickton's investigation ended.

“Now that (the criminal investigation) is complete, we're hoping he will let us know what else is going on,” said Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair. “These are not private employees. They're government employees, so there needs to be some accountability to Congress.”

Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, agreed: “The fact that there was no criminality doesn't mean there isn't going to be any accountability.”

At least five veterans died, and 16 were sickened in a Legionnaires' outbreak at VA hospitals in Oakland and O'Hara. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the outbreak likely began in February 2011. A Tribune-Review investigation discovered alarming levels of Legionella bacteria in testing at the hospitals as far back as 2007.

The VA did not announce the outbreak until Nov. 16, 2012.

“I'm surprised they would not take it to a grand jury and let them make a determination,” said J. Ward Morrow, assistant general counsel for the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 2,500 Pittsburgh VA employees. “Clearly the veterans, the veterans' families, the employees and the public in Pittsburgh have a lot of concern over this issue.”

Hickton's decision disappointed some families, who fear no one will be held accountable for the deaths.

“It makes no sense to me. It makes me mad, very mad. They're trying to say they're not at fault. Then who is? Whose fault is it?” said Sandy Riley, 61, of Swissvale, whose brother Lloyd “Mitch” Wanstreet, 65, of Jeannette died during the outbreak.

The family of one victim — William E. Nicklas, 87, of Hampton, who died Nov. 23, 2012 — characterized the prosecutor's decision as “yet another slap in the face,” said Judy Nicklas, William's daughter-in-law.

Hickton, through spokeswoman Margaret Philbin, declined to comment further.

The families of the dead veterans have filed preliminary paperwork to sue the VA.

“Five veterans suffered preventable deaths due to mismanagement within the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System. For its part, VA has rewarded the executives who oversaw the heartbreaking Legionnaires' disease outbreak with bonuses of up to $63,000 and glowing performance reviews that make no mention of the outbreak or the harm it caused,” Florida Republican Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said in a statement.

Two top VA officials announced their resignations or retirement after the outbreak: VA Undersecretary for Health Robert Petzel, who retires next year, and Michael Moreland, former director of a Pittsburgh-based VA regional office, who left this month.

Moreland, who ran the VA Pittsburgh system before taking over the regional Veterans Integrated Service Network 4, received a $63,000 bonus just after the outbreak became public. The VA promised to investigate the circumstance behind that White House-approved bonus, but refuses to answer questions about its probe.

“These people have lied to veterans, lied to families, lied to the media, lied to the health department, lied to Congress,” said Maureen Ciarolla of Monroeville, daughter of another VA Legionnaires' fatality, John J. Ciarolla, 83, of North Versailles.

She plans to talk with other families of victims about their next steps.

“I am not stopping here,” Ciarolla said. “This is not over.”

Mike Wereschagin, Luis Fábregas and Adam Smeltz and are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Contact Wereschagin at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com; Fábregas at 412-320-7998 or lfabregas@tribweb.com; and Smeltz at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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