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VA promotion for administrator stuns legislator

| Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014, 12:01 a.m.
David Cord, deputy director of Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System, is set to take over as director of the Erie VA Medical Center.
David Cord, deputy director of Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System, is set to take over as director of the Erie VA Medical Center.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is promoting an administrator who advised against publicly disclosing a deadly Legionnaires' outbreak at its Pittsburgh hospital system, the agency told Congress.

David Cord, deputy director of VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System since June 2012, will become director of the Erie VA Medical Center within 60 days, the VA informed Congress.

The VA disclosed the Legionnaires' outbreak that killed at least six and sickened at least 16 others on Nov. 16, 2012 — two days after Cord told a VA spokesman not to alert the public about it, according to an internal email from the spokesman obtained as part of a Tribune-Review investigation.

The VA did not respond to requests to interview Cord, disclose his new salary, or say why the agency chose him to replace Dr. Michael Adelman in Erie.

Cord, a 13-year veteran of the agency, did not return calls to his office and home.

Cord's salary in 2013 was $127,531, according to a database of federal salaries.

Gary Devansky, director of the Pittsburgh-based Veterans Integrated Service Network 4, said in an email to Congress he was “excited to bring Mr. Cord on board” as director in Erie. VISN4 region includes most of Pennsylvania, all of Delaware, and parts of New Jersey, New York, Ohio and West Virginia.

“His unique leadership experience and insight as an Air Force veteran will be valuable assets for the facility, the employees and volunteers, and most importantly for the veterans we are honored to serve,” Devansky wrote.

U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, called the promotion “incomprehensible and indefensible.” Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Butler, who represents Erie, declined comment until he talks to Cord, a spokesman said.

Murphy and Cord tangled during a contentious series of phone calls on May 29 in which Cord said veterans in Pittsburgh didn't wait longer than 30 days for care, and that the facility didn't keep a secret waiting list like one in Phoenix that caused a national outcry, an aide to Murphy said.

That same day, VA Pittsburgh Director Terry Gerigk Wolf told Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, that a separate list included more than 700 veterans trying to enroll for care. Some waited longer than a year for their first appointment.

Two weeks later, acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson suspended Wolf with pay for her role in the Legionnaires' outbreak, which the VA and the Centers for Disease Control said occurred between February 2011 and November 2012.

On Nov. 14, 2012, two days before the VA Pittsburgh disclosed the outbreak, former spokesman David Cowgill wrote to an aide of VA Pittsburgh Chief of Staff Dr. Ali Sonel that Cord “does not want to be proactive and go to the media with a statement.”

Instead, Cord wanted Cowgill to prepare a statement, in case “they come to us, which we are anticipating they will,” said the email that the Trib obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Six months later, when the VA Office of Inspector General issued a report documenting failures that led to the outbreak, Cord emailed Cowgill expressing worry about demands from Congress and veterans' families that VA Pittsburgh officials face discipline.

“Great. Its(sic) clear the lawmakers want a head on a platter at this point,” Cord wrote to Cowgill on April 24, 2013.

As director of the VA Erie Medical Center, Cord will oversee 650 employees and facilities in six counties, serving 23,000 veterans, according to the VA. The center has a budget of nearly $116 million.

In an emailed response to Trib questions about Cord's promotion, VA Pittsburgh spokesman Mark Ray responded: “VA extends its condolences to the families of the veterans affected by acquiring Legionella in our healthcare system,” and has taken steps to beef up its Legionella prevention.

Mike Wereschagin is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com.

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