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VA secretary lauds Pittsburgh regional director's integrity despite Legionnaires' outbreak

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By Mike Wereschagin and Adam Smeltz
Saturday, July 27, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

The secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs is standing beside his embattled regional director in Pittsburgh, despite calls for Michael Moreland's ouster over a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires' disease that occurred on his watch.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki defended Moreland — and nearly $80,000 in bonuses he received during the two-year outbreak — in a letter to U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair. Shinseki called Moreland “an outstanding professional who continuously demonstrates strength, commitment, integrity and a relentless commitment to public service.”

“It blows my mind that they're all defending one another. I guess there's safety in numbers,” said Robert Nicklas of Adams, whose father, William, was one of five veterans who died in the outbreak that lasted from February 2011 to November 2012. “I don't know when they're going to stop, if they're ever going to stop.”

Moreland's bonuses caused an uproar in Congress and the public. Pressure by Murphy and others prompted the VA to postpone bonuses for some VA executives in Pennsylvania.

Yet the rewards rolled in. VA Pittsburgh CEO Terry Wolf, deputy David Cord, Chief of Staff Dr. Ali Sonel and Associate Director Lovetta Ford took home a combined $45,000 for their job performance during the outbreak, according to the VA.

The agency gives bonuses based on a wide range of performance goals, VA spokesman David Cowgill said. Cord, Sonel and Ford were not in their current positions during the entire two-year period, so some of their bonuses could be related to previous work, he said.

“All four of these leaders have a long-standing commitment of service to VA and have proven their dedication to improving VA both for veterans and for their employees,” Cowgill said.

Moreland received his largest bonus, a $63,000 award the White House approved, in October 2012, a month before national VA leaders learned of the outbreak, Shinseki wrote to Murphy.

Moreland's infectious disease control policies were among the reasons he got the bonus, Murphy noted.

Murphy said he's sending another letter to Shinseki to ask: “If you knew then what you know now, would he have still qualified for this award?”

A VA spokeswoman did not answer that question when the Tribune-Review posed it on Friday.

The American Federation of Government Employees in March asked Shinseki to suspend Moreland and investigate his leadership.

“At some point, the secretary really needs to get a clue and understand this is a major problem and that it has major implications for health care patients and staff,” said J. Ward Morrow, assistant general counsel for the federation in Washington.

If the VA's leaders did not know about the outbreak until it was almost over, “then where's the outrage from them, or are they involved in the cover-up also?” said Maureen Ciarolla of Monroeville, whose father, John Ciarolla, was among the five who died.

The bonuses help the VA “attract and retain the best and brightest leaders,” VA spokeswoman Gina Jackson said.

“VA senior executives are an important part of VA's over-325,000-employee workforce, over 32 percent of whom are veterans, and they come to work every day focused on our mission of serving veterans and their families,” Jackson said.

The lack of disciplinary action since the outbreak frustrates congressional overseers. Shinseki's letter is part of a “sordid tradition” of behaving unaccountably and shows that President Obama's “direct involvement” is needed to end the VA's “culture of complacency,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

“But even more shameful are the many instances — in Pittsburgh and elsewhere across the country — where VA employees and executives are being rewarded, rather than punished for their incompetence,” Miller said.

Mike Wereschagin and Adam Smeltz are Trib Total Media staff writers. Reach Wereschagin at 412-320-7900 or Reach Smeltz at 412-380-5676 or

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