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Firing at Fargo VA Medical Center faulted

The U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission has ruled that managers at the Fargo Veterans Affairs Medical Center fired a doctor in reprisal for his testimony in a colleague's bias complaint.

The U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission has ruled that managers at the Fargo Veterans Affairs Medical Center fired a doctor in reprisal for his testimony in a colleague's bias complaint.

The decision ordered the VA to rehire Dr. Rudranath Talukdar, with full back pay dating to his dismissal in 2002.

The ruling, under appeal by the VA, is the latest of several administrative findings of bias and retaliation involving foreign doctors and union representatives at the veterans medical complex in Fargo.

"I'm really disappointed in what's coming out of that center," Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said Friday.

Although Dorgan said "I don't have all the facts," he added: "Obviously the evidence suggests that there were some management missteps. There's something in need of repair there."


All of the cases stem from a dispute over a claim of unequal pay for 10 foreign doctors, all allowed in the U.S. on professional work visas, staffing the medical center.

The foreign doctors filed a complaint in 1999 that resulted in the U.S. Department of Labor ordering the VA to pay them $212,499.

In a separate case, an administrative law judge ruled that Talukdar and Dr. Harjinder Virdee were fired in retaliation for their advocacy on behalf of the foreign doctors pressing their pay claim. The labor ruling ordered the VA to rehire both doctors, now working in private practice, with full back pay and benefits.

The National Federation of Federal Employees, which represents 125 doctors and other medical professionals at the Fargo VA medical center, estimates Talukdar is owed $565,000 in back pay and benefits.

Altogether, the union estimates the VA's liability in five cases stemming from the pay dispute tops $1.7 million.

The most recent decision, filed this spring by the EEOC, agrees with the earlier labor finding that Talukdar's dismissal for budgetary reasons was a pretext for retaliation.

The decision notes that Talukdar received notice his contract wouldn't be renewed one week after he testified in an EEOC hearing on Virdee's behalf. Virdee lost her case before the EEOC, but is appealing in federal court.

The commission also found the VA's credibility on the reasons for Talukdar's dismissal was undermined by comments made by Douglas Kenyon, the center director.


"I do not know what the foreign doctors want," Kenyon was quoted as saying by Talukdar and Robert Redding, a psychologist who is the union's top official at the Fargo VA center. "They come here, get their green cards and they leave."

The EEOC ordered Kenyon to take eight hours of equal opportunity training, "with an emphasis on the prohibition against reprisal."

The commission also directed the VA to consider taking disciplinary action against "the management officials responsible for discriminatory actions" in Talukdar's case.

Kenyon, through a spokes-woman, declined comment on the EEOC ruling. The VA is appealing the ruling, and the agency is following "statutory procedure," said Margaret Wheelden, public affairs officer at the Fargo VA center.

"While this case is being appealed we will not comment further," she said Friday.

Talukdar said the EEOC decision, together with the earlier labor findings, clearly reveal serious management problems at the Fargo VA center that shouldn't be ignored.

"Somewhere somebody's going to have to look at this and say, 'What's going on at the VA?' " he said.

Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., agreed with Dorgan that the ruling in Talukdar's case is "troubling," but said appeals in the cases remain pending.


"My view is the process has not run it's course yet," he said. "At this point in time I'm inclined to see it as an internal employment matter."

But, Pomeroy added, he will continue to monitor the cases. If bias or retaliation decisions ultimately are upheld, "You bet we'll take action," he said.

Last July, Dorgan wrote Anthony Principi, then the secretary of veterans affairs, asking the agency to take steps to avoid similar problems in the future, and to ensure that North Dakota's veterans aren't penalized by any costly judgments the agency might pay for "managerial errors."

Dorgan repeated that concern Friday, saying, "I hope there's accountability in the VA system for that."

Virdee, whose federal court case originally was slated for trial in July but was moved to January, said the VA is stalling to avoid paying large judgments.

"They're going to drag us along for the rest of our lives through the courts," she said. "That seems to be the pattern."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

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