VA hospital promoted supervisor 1 month after feds recommended he be fired

A hospital supervisor at the VA Loma Linda (Calif.) Healthcare System was promoted shortly after a federal investigation that deemed him "problematic," the Orange County Register reported May 17. 

The VA Administrative Investigation Board began investigating Martin Robles in December 2020. The next month, it recommended he be fired following 57 hours of testimony from 36 witnesses and 4,000 pages of exhibits. Employees said Mr. Robles frequently used racist language and required them to buy him food, cover his absences, and drive him to and from work. Those who refused were given bad assignments as punishment, according to employees. 

"There were numerous instances where inappropriate language and racial slurs were used which appears to be a common practice," the board said in a 61-page report. "Inappropriate and discriminatory hiring practices were found, which have contributed to the lack of trust, poor morale and fractured culture."

However, Mr. Robles was given increased responsibilities at the hospital about one month after the investigation concluded, according to the Register

"[Mr. Robles] will need all of your support to be successful in his new role," David Grzechowiak, maintenance and operations chief, wrote in an email to employees. 

One of the whistleblowers on Mr. Robles' misbehavior was Ryan Joseph Sperry, a former marine and VA Loma Linda irrigation technician. Mr. Sperry wrote a five-page letter to the VA Loma Linda human resources office, explaining how stress from working with Mr. Robles and the ensuing investigation had taken a toll on his health — eventually leading to hospitalization from chest pain. 

On May 11, 2022, Mr. Sperry and three co-workers wrote another letter to Steven Simpson, acting assistant chief of facility management services. 

"We can no longer stand for our rights being violated to the extent in which it is affecting our mental/physical health," the letter said. "Many of us are no longer happy or even comfortable going into work because of the hostile work environment that we experience regularly from our supervisor."

Mr. Sperry, who also suffered from PTSD and alcohol dependency, died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound on Aug. 9, 2022. 

In April, members of Congress launched another investigation into the Department of Veterans Affairs and its Loma Linda Healthcare System for its continued employment of Mr. Robles against government recommendation. 

Loma Linda Healthcare System did not return Becker's request for comment. However, a spokesperson for the health system responded to the Register via email. 

"We aim to ensure a safe, harassment-free environment in a culture where all employees, veterans and guests are treated with dignity and respect," the spokesperson said. "It is also incumbent on us to ensure that we do not infringe on the rights of an individual regarding the release of information while providing a clear and transparent response to agency disciplinary processes." 

Joe Spielberger, policy counsel for the nonprofit watchdog organization Project on Government Oversight, told the Register that Mr. Robles' promotion was "mind-boggling," but is not shocking given the VA's history of hostile supervisors. 

"We have seen similar issues for years and years involving the VA failing to hold supervisors responsible and not protecting whistleblowers," Mr. Spielberger said. "Misconduct by senior VA officials is pervasive and systemic." 

Read the full article by investigative reporter Scott Schwebke here

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