Inquiry into VA hospital widens

Staff members at the Tampa hospital say VA police stole people's identities and ran up credit card charges.

Published March 8, 2006

TAMPA - Federal officials have broadened an investigation of patient care and management at James A. Haley VA Medical Center into "possible criminal charges" against members of the hospital's police department.

The new allegations include charges of civil rights violations and identity theft by VA police.

In the civil rights matter, Sgt. Darryl Ross allegedly struck a female suspect who was handcuffed while in police custody.

Ross told the St. Petersburg Times the case is under investigation but declined further comment.

Hospital staff members also allege that VA police used the FBI's National Crime Information Center to steal people's identities and run up as much as $30,000 in credit card charges.

At least one officer lost his job.

Jon Wooditch, deputy inspector general at the Veterans Affairs Department, confirmed that investigators "are looking into some VA police-related issues at Haley" but would not elaborate.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Michael Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, said the investigation involves "possible criminal charges."

In an e-mail to the Times Wednesday, spokeswoman Christy Stefadouros said the House VA Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations will be monitoring the investigation. Bilirakis chairs the subcommittee.

The subcommittee wants a briefing by the inspector general when the investigation is completed, Stefadouros wrote.

Haley police Chief William Langley declined to discuss the investigation. Other VA officials at Haley and in Washington also refused.

The FBI would join the investigation if allegations of civil rights abuse rose to the level of a criminal act, "if it's very obvious police have crossed the line of police brutality," said Carol Michalik, an FBI spokeswoman in Tampa.

VA police provide security at VA facilities across the country, including Haley and Bay Pines VA Medical Center in Pinellas County. Job applicants must have a minimum of two years law enforcement experience or an associate's or bachelor's degree in criminal justice.

Applicants also must undergo extensive physical examinations, psychological evaluations and background investigations.

The investigation of the police department marks the second time in as many months that Haley, the nation's busiest VA hospital, has caught the eye of the inspector general.

In February, investigators began looking into charges of poor patient care at the hospital and at a contract with the University of South Florida. A chief complaint is that patients routinely were placed under anesthesia in the operating room while surgeons tended to personal matters. Investigators also are reviewing the contract worth more than $300,000 that required USF staffers to perform heart surgeries at Haley.

The Haley inquiries come as the inspector general looks into allegations of mismanagement and poor patient care at the Bay Pines VA Medical Center in south Pinellas County.

Paul de la Garza can be reached at delagarza@sptimes.com or 813 226-3432.