Ex-SH man aiming to see VA in court over ‘wrongful’ firing

Audrey Gomez

Joshua Peargin knew his job with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs might be on the line when he decided to speak up last winter about discrepancies in information reported by VA facilities.

He was right.

Peargin, who grew up in Sweet Home and served for 11 years in the U.S. Air Force before taking the job with the VA, was fired Jan. 8, 2015, after 10½ months of employment as a veteran service representative.

He was still on probation and was told he could be fired for any reason during that period.

Peargin had gone to his supervisor over discrepencies he’d discovered regarding veterans’ appointments at VA treatment centers, which, he said, were not being accurately documented – to the patients’ disadvantage.

After reporting his concerns, he said, he was called into a meeting with the director. Peargin said his supervisor, Beth Whitehill, said she did not know why they were meeting.

According to Peargin, Kevin Kalama, veterans service center manager, was there as well. The mood was cordial, Peargin said.

Then the director said Peargin’s supervisor didn’t recommend that they keep him. A human resources department representative gave a “spiel,” and then Kalama asked for Peargin’s badge.

“I asked if I could print stuff out,” Peargin said.

The answer was no.

Peargin had been keeping information on his work computer about the instances of veterans’ missed appointments and changes that had been made to the files.

The next day, Peargin contacted his union representative Amanda Schroeder, president of AFE Local 2157.

She sent a memorandum to Christopher Marshall, director of the Portland VA Regional Office on Jan. 9, 2015, in which she requested information relevant to Peargin’s claims.

Peargin said, and Schroeder confirmed, that she received text messages from other employees informing her that “they were taking (Peargin’s) computer.”

He filed two complaints against the VA – one for wrongful termination, the other for discrimination.

That process could take up to two years, Schroeder said.

Allegations

Part of Peargin’s job entailed processing veterans’ claims. He said he was concerned that veterans were reported as missing their appointments but “were either given very little notification to veterans regarding their appointments (a couple of days) or none at all.”

The first incident he noticed was in July of 2014, he wrote in a statement to the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General.

“It happened again in late October,” Peargin said. “Roseburg VA Medical canceled two times already because the veteran was five miles out of their jurisdiction.”

The veteran finally got an appointment at that facility, but it was reported that he refused to go and wanted an appointment at a different location, Peargin said.

“I called (the) veteran and spoke with (his) spouse,” Peargin said. “(She said) that’s impossible. He was in the hospital for three days.”

Peargin said he went to his supervisor.

“This is blatant,” Peargin said. “This is them lying.”

“(When) a veteran misses an appointment, if they have a good reason, they can reschedule,” Peargin said.

If not, it counts against them while at the same time giving the appearance of shorter wait times for the VA facilities.

Attempted resolution

After he was dismissed and filed his two complaints, Peargin received a letter on Aug. 5, 2015 from Melinda McMorris, complaints examiner for the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.

“We have decided to refer for further investigation your allegations that you were terminated due to making protected disclosures, which is in violation of 5 U.S.C. § 2302(b)(8),” McMorris wrote. She referred the discrimination complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Peargin said he attempted to resolve the complaints through mediation.

He said he could have settled his claims for $350,000.

“(We could be) debt-free and have money in the bank,” Peargin said. “But if we do that, then the problem doesn’t get fixed.”

His wife was pregnant at the time. The couple has two small children.

“We talked about it, prayed about it,” Peargin said.

They decided to not take the money.

On Sunday, Oct. 11, 2015, Peargin emailed Allison Hickey, undersecretary for benefits. The subject line read: “It is with a heavy heart that I write to you.”

In the email, Peargin detailed the discrepancies he discovered, the way he was treated after trying to rectify them, and the possible destruction of evidence. He was asking for Hickey’s help.

In his email to Hickey, he said that he has “tried and tried to keep this out of the press because the people who work claims do it for the right reasons and are passionate about their jobs.”

He asked her to reach out to him before it was out of his hands.

On Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015, Peargin received a response from her office.

It read: “Mr. Peargin: Thank you for contacting the Under Secretary of Benefits. Allison truly cares about answering your email. She is reading them but has asked her claims team to help expedite your inquiry. We have also included the your (sic) Regional Office Director, William F. Streitberber. Best regards, Theresa.”

The next day, Hickey resigned.

MilitaryTimes.com reported she “stepped down from her post Friday amid praise from her colleagues and renewed attacks from her critics.”

Peargin said he asked for a “ridiculous amount” of money in his claim because “I want this to go to court. I want other veterans to stand up with me and talk about when this has happened to them.”

Peargin invites veterans to contact him via Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/joshua.peargin.

Reporter Audrey Gomez is interested in talking to veterans who have experienced problems with appointment notifications and scheduling with the VA of the nature described in this article. Contact her at (541) 367-2135 or [email protected].

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