ShareThis Page

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

| Saturday, July 27, 2013, 12:16 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

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.