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VA told to give details on staff

Officials are ordered to produce all available information on convicted sex offenders working for the huge agency.

By PAUL DE LA GARZA
Published June 3, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG - Congressional leaders on Friday ordered the embattled Department of Veterans Affairs to produce the identity and location of all convicted sexual offenders employed by the agency, the federal government's second-largest bureaucracy.

The order came after the St. Petersburg Times disclosed that the VA Medical Center at Bay Pines employs convicted sex offenders who work among scores of middle and high school students in a volunteer program.

"I am deeply disturbed that the VA employs convicted sex offenders," said Rep. Michael Bilirakis, chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

"I believe it is important that we monitor our facilities and staff in order to provide a safe environment for our nation's veterans and VA staff."

In a letter to the VA drafted Friday morning, the Palm Harbor Republican asked for the number of convicted sexual offenders employed by the agency, the name of the facility where they work, their position and length of employment.

"My reaction is that this is really a serious matter, especially when you're dealing with teenage children," said Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores. "This is too serious to be written off."

Young was the keynote speaker at Bay Pines on Memorial Day and praised the work of volunteers. He said he will seek assurances from VA Secretary Jim Nicholson next week that young people and patients on VA campuses are protected from sexual offenders.

Spokesman Phil Budahn in Washington declined comment.

The sexual offender case has brought more attention to an agency already under scrutiny over the theft of a computer hard drive that contained personal information for 26.5-million veterans.

Besides processing veterans' benefits and operating cemeteries, the VA runs the nation's largest health care system. The agency has more than 218,000 employees and manages 162 hospitals and scores of clinics.

In response to inquiries from the Times about a convicted child molester who worked at Bay Pines, the VA said the hospital employed more than one sex offender.

Officials did not say how many sex offenders work at the hospital but said they had received no complaints from volunteers, their families or visitors.

"Management reviews and evaluates the nature and seriousness of any criminal background information and appropriately balances that risk with the sensitivity of the position," the VA said.

The agency said it had not notified parents and students that Bay Pines employs sex offenders but said parents and students are advised to report inappropriate behavior from any employee, patient, volunteer or visitor.

"That language is being strengthened and will be distributed to parents and volunteers as soon as possible," the VA said.

James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa, the nation's busiest VA hospital, did not respond Friday to a request for comment.

Questions about sex offenders were provoked by the case of Willie J. Williams, 45, a housekeeper who has worked 15 years at Bay Pines. Williams pleaded guilty in 2003 to molesting a teenage female relative.

An anonymous letter to the Times spelled out his conviction and noted that the hospital was about to launch a summer volunteer program for middle school and high school students as young as 13.

Bay Pines sponsors a volunteer student program over the summer to help staff members with veterans. The Summer Youth Volunteer Program has 150 slots for students across Pinellas.

According to a hospital newsletter, the students work in various areas of Bay Pines. Orientation was May 22, and the program starts Monday.

The VA said supervisors ensure the students are adequately supervised.

In addition, the VA said, hospital employees convicted of sexual abuse of children have undergone an intensive rehabilitation program and supervisors provide appropriate oversight.

The VA said convicted sexual offenders also are monitored in the workplace through a program called Compensated Work Therapy.

"By the time veterans are in the CWT program, VA clinicians have known them for years," the VA said.

"Their suitability for work assignments has been deliberated by clinicians and front-line supervisors and a determination has been made that the employees work assignments are appropriate given their backgrounds."

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

[Last modified June 3, 2006, 05:57:29]


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