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Ex-Phoenix VA head gets probation in wait list-linked case

This May 29, 2014 file photo shows the St. Louis VA Medical Center. On Wednesday, June 4, 2014, Missouri Sens. Roy Blunt and Claire McCaskill say VA leaders need to be held accountable after reports that Veterans Affairs health care centers in four Midwestern states maintained secret, unauthorized waiting lists of veterans, some of whom waited for care for more than 90 days. (AP Photo/Jim Salter)

This May 29, 2014 file photo shows the St. Louis VA Medical Center. (AP Photo/Jim Salter)

A former VA health system director has been sentenced to two years’ probation for failing to disclose gifts received while supervising the Phoenix hospital where whistleblowers revealed veterans on secret waiting lists faced scheduling delays of up to a year.

U.S. District Court Judge Steven Logan sentenced Sharon Helman on Monday for making a false statement to a government agency by not including more than $19,000 in gifts — including a car, concert tickets and round-trip airfare — on a financial disclosure report.

Inside a sparsely-filled court room in Phoenix, Logan described Helman’s career as impressive and her ethical violation as deliberate.

“I’m accepting the plea, but I’m not naive,” he said. “The reason you didn’t report any of it was because deep down you knew,” Logan told Helman.

Helman was accused of failing to list more than $50,000 in gifts she received from a lobbyist between 2012 and 2014. She pleaded down to a single charge under a plea agreement reached with prosecutors prior to the sentencing.

Helman oversaw the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center in Phoenix but was fired after whistleblowers disclosed the secret waiting list to Congress. Some veterans died while waiting for appointments.

Authorities first learned about Helman accepting gifts while investigating problems at the medical center.

Helman wept Monday before the judge. She expressed regret and called her ethical violation a “betrayal of trust” to veterans and the country.

“As proud as I am of the work I did for veterans, I know I could have served them better,” Helman said. “I should have disclosed the gifts I received from a personal friend, but I did not.”

Prosecutors said all of the gifts were from a single source, a person identified in court as a former high-level VA employee who from 2005-2009 served as Helman’s supervisor.

From 2012-14, that person was an executive consultant and later vice president of a consulting and lobbying firm that assisted companies in expanding their business with the VA, according to prosecutors.

Federal prosecutors didn’t charge her with unlawfully accepting the gifts, but failing to provide the VA with required information to evaluate a potential conflict of interest.

“It just so happened that his company gets millions in VA federal dollars?” Logan asked the prosecutor about the gifts.

“That may be difficult to believe but that is in fact what the investigation revealed,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank Galati.

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