Dorgan wants to review VA center report
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., wants to review an investigative report that concluded a union leader apparently was the subject of "a form of harassment or retaliation" at the Fargo Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
The Forum reported Sunday that three union leaders at the VA center - two physicians and a psychologist - were fired in the midst of a pay dispute involving foreign doctors.
The top local union leader was rehired after an investigation by a federal labor official determined that allegations that he had "hacked" into the agency's computer network were unsupported, and possibly fabricated.
"We are asking for a copy of the report," Dorgan said Monday. "I want to understand what has happened here. I don't know the facts."
The union leader, Robert Redding, was rehired last year after challenging his dismissal. The VA agreed to pay back pay of $16,000 and attorney's fees of $52,000, he said.
Also, a federal administrative law judge recently determined that the two physicians, Dr. Harjinder Virdee and Dr. Rudranath Talukdar, were fired in retaliation for speaking out for higher pay for foreign doctors. They were ordered to be rehired, with back pay.
The VA is appealing that order. If the decision stands, back pay for the two doctors could exceed $560,000, according to an estimate by the union, the National Federation of Federal Employees.
The Fargo VA also is appealing a 2002 order by the U.S. Department of Labor to pay $212,499 to 10 foreign doctors whose pay it concluded was too low.
If the labor decisions are upheld, the total cost for grievances stemming from the pay dispute - and related retaliation - could reach $840,499.
That money would be better spent taking care of the medical needs of veterans, Dorgan said.
"We appropriate money for veterans' health care, not these types of things," he said. "I'm troubled by anything that detracts from the mission of providing quality health care to the veterans."
A spokeswoman for Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., said he also is looking into the matter.
"He's still reviewing information and taking a look at it to see whether any action is required," said Aleta Botts, Pomeroy's legislative director.
VA officials, including Douglas Kenyon, director of the Fargo center, have denied retaliating against union officials, or allegations they were out to "bust" the local NFFE union, which represents about 125 employees at the center.
Meanwhile, Fargo VA officials said Monday that Anthony Principi, secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, has canceled a planned appearance June 25 to observe the center's 75th anniversary. Because of scheduling conflicts, a deputy secretary will appear instead, said Peg Wheeldon, public affairs officer at the Fargo VA center.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522