Four Veteran Affairs police officers say they feel like former NYPD officer Frank Serpico, battling alone against a corrupt and intransigent bureaucracy.
The four VA cops — Tim Petoskey of the Seattle VA, John Moline of the Sheridan, Wyoming VA, Ghassan “Goose” Ghannoum of the Los Angeles VA, and Greg Chiles of the Fort Harrison, Montana VA — told their stories and often, much like Serpico, they were blowing the whistle on systemic corruption within the police department.
The officers protect VA property, veterans, visitors and staff. Their jurisdiction is any part of VA property — the LA VA property includes three major hospitals and several other smaller clinics. Their work includes: conducting patrols, responding to calls like talking down a suicidal individual, and investigating crimes like trespassing, assault, and shootings in progress.
Moline disclosed that his chief of police, John Penney, covered up when false reports were submitted, promoted unfairly a paramour, and performed numerous acts of favoritism.
Ghannoum said that while he initially blew the whistle on nurses illegally forcing patients to stay at the hospital, hes since alleged that the police chief, Charles Leas, has been covering up for a corrupt police officer named Ralph Garcia.
During the course of his investigation,Ghannoum said he found that Leas and Garcia were business partners in security firm with a third LA VA Police officer, in violation of ethical codes.
“An investigation identified a past history of the police chief having a business interest with another employee, however that business interest is no longer in place,” said Curt Cashour, press secretary for the VA, of the allegation.
Petoskey reported on numerous issues in his department to the VA Office of Inspector General (VAOIG) — discrimination, gross mismanagement and misuse of overtime — and he said that an investigation led to then chief, deputy chief, patrol commander and operations commander all being terminated, but he still faced persistent retaliation throughout.
“Anything you can think of- theyve messed with my pay, given me poor performance evaluation, and taken my creds (his badge) and put me on desk duty,” Petoskey said.
All four said they have been subject of specious investigations, often forced to spend months in desk duty while the investigations unfold.
When Serpico testified in front of the Knapp Commission in December 1971 about his experiences blowing the whistle on systemic graft in the New York Police Department, he famously said: “The problem is that the atmosphere does not yet exist in which an honest police officer can act without fear of ridicule or reprisal from fellow officers. Police corruption cannot exist unless it is at least tolerated.”
But for each of the four, that corrosive environment still exists for them.
“So many police officers are scared. When a whistleblower engages the VA, the VA will attack that officer. These attacks are effective, and the majority of cops are scared of losing their jobs and being attacked in the same way as the whistleblower,” Petoskey said.
“I can actively tell you right now that a majority of officers within my department came forward said their peace and expect accountability, but nothing was taken serious,” Chiles said.
Moline said that even after his disclosures turned into a purported investigation of systemic corruption into the department, that investigation quickly turned into one against those making the disclosures.
Since January 2018, hes been detailed — or put into temporary desk duty — and has remained in that status for the last 13 weeks while the investigation into his behavior continues.
“One of the most important things to take into consideration is that there is no depth to the type of retaliation the VA is willing to commit, predominantly stemming from retaliation against whistleblowers, such as myself,” Ghannoum said.
One common tool for retaliation is the regular evaluation process all VA police go through.
In Chiles case, a traffic stop led to a VA psychologist using this process to retaliate.
He noted that when he came on board in 2014, he was the only one enforcing traffic stops in the roads that make up the hospital complex.
When he stopped a VA psychologist named Stephen Nagy for going 36 mph in a 20 mph zone, he said that Nagy issued a veiled threat, “I work in behavioral health; I do your annual police psych,” Chiles said Nagy told him.
After Chiles gave him a written warning, Nagy did indeed do his next psychological evaluation and demanded years of his medical records he wasnt entitled to, then refused to proceed when he did not get permission.
Chiles said as he continued disclosing waste, fraud and abuse, his medical records were accessed illegally about 100 times.
“During my 9 years of service at the VA I have observed an unfairness and misuse of the mid-term and yearly evaluations. The process which should hold everyone to an equal playing field is anything but fair. I have seen officers who break federal and state laws, policy and procedures rated at Excellent and Outstanding while other officers with no issues or counselings knocked down for things such as not having a positive attitude or spelling issues. The evaluation process can and is manipulated to boost certain officers upwards while other officers are kept at lower ratings,” Moline said.
“Upon learning of these allegations, VA investigated and found them to be unsubstantiated,” Cashour, the VA press secretary, said of this allegation.
Petoskey said he was once given a poor evaluation and the only reason given was that he spent too much time with Army Reserve duties.
Chiles and Moline said they discovered their medical records illegally accessed, while Ghannoum said the VA tried to force him to release his medical records under the threat of termination.
“A review of Officer Molines medical records was performed. There was no evidence that his records were inappropriately accessed,” Cashour said.
Petoskey said while nothing illegal was done, he was the subject of five investigations, one administrative investigative board and several fact-finding investigations. Ghannoum said he was investigated three times.
Chiles discovered that a VA official lied in an affidavit and more recently, in a petition to appeal a Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) ruling favorable to Chiles, claimed falsely that he went to the Fort Harrison VA Medical Center with suicidal thoughts.
Chiles said not only is this false, but he has never received medical treatment at the VA for anything.
Tim Petoskey said corruption reaches all levels of the VA bureaucracy: “And higher. It includes the facility directors who oversee the Chiefs. We just got a new Chief, and no one knows if they can trust him, not because anything he has done or failed to do, but because we have had 15 or 20 Chiefs since 2009 and the vast majority have been corrupted.”
“Corruption does NOT only reach the Chief of Police, but often the Senior Executive Staff members within the facility, otherwise known as the Directors office,” Ghannoum said.
“The Chief of Police is the head figure for the law enforcement at each facility. They must be above reproach, follow the rules and regulations and maintain an equal and level playing field. Too many times I see and hear Chiefs abuse their power by manipulating the system (many times with ease due to vague policy, procedures and rules) which brings further scrutiny and concern with the VA and police services. The issues are not within the lower ranks of the people who work at the VA but from management upwards,” said John Moline.
Serpico was shot in the face and nearly killed when the two police officers with him on a drug bust did not provide back-up; none of the roughly 40,000 cops then on the NYPD donated blood to him though he nearly bled to death and no investigation of the incident was ever done.
Writing in Politico in 2013, he noted, “As I said to the Knapp Commission 43 years ago, we must create an atmosphere where the crooked cop fears the honest cop, and not the other way around. An honest cop should be able to speak out against unjust or illegal behavior by fellow officers without fear of ridicule or reprisals. Those that speak out should be rewarded and respected by their superiors, not punished.”
“Were not there yet.”