- By Jeremy Schwartz American-Statesman Staff
Veterans in the work program at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Temple campus had complained about being assigned to the motor pool for years.
The complaints, made by veterans undergoing drug and alcohol treatment as they tried to get their lives back on track, alleged the unit’s boss— who was in charge of the grounds crew at the motor pool — had regularly subjected them to verbal abuse and tirades.
Other complaints hinted at possible crimes; VA equipment like lawnmowers and expensive tools regularly disappeared. Veterans said assignments sometimes took them off the sprawling VA campus in Temple and to the homes of high-ranking VA officials, where they said they were ordered to work.
Yet even as the complaints piled up, administrators took no action.
This spring, after veterans had lodged nearly 50 grievances over a decade, the Central Texas VA finally launched an internal investigation into the motor pool. In August, the three-person administrative board confirmed much of what the veterans had long alleged — and uncovered much more.
The American-Statesman obtained a preliminary, unsigned version of the board’s report. It found that some VA supervisors had stolen equipment from the agency and benefited personally from the labor of veterans in the vocational training program. Current and former veterans in the program testified that they had been told to build fences, repair sprinkler systems and perform other landscaping work at the homes of certain supervisors and their family members.
The veterans also testified that while they were being paid by the government, they were forced to repair personal vehicles and do other odd jobs for supervisors.
And in a finding that has sparked a wider VA inquiry, the investigators said they had uncovered a complex scheme at the motor pool to secretly profit from VA purchase orders. The board concluded employees at the motor pool had funneled business to a small Killeen firm that investigators said made at least $400,000 by padding purchases with 30 percent surcharges. In all, the report found, more than $1.3 million was “funneled through” the business, Whitetail Industrial Parts and Service, in recent years.
In a phone interview, Oarrin Nash, the motor pool boss who the board accused of abusing and intimidating workers and misusing government resources, disputed the report’s findings. “A lot of malicious things have been said against me,” he said. “97.7% of them are lies.” He said he never stole VA equipment or forced veterans to work at the homes of supervisors, and had no knowledge of the financial activities involving Whitetail, which is owned by Jeff Pearson.
Phone and Facebook messages sent to Pearson were not returned. Other employees mentioned in the report either did not respond to interview requests or were not made available by the VA.
The allegations involve some of the VA’s most vulnerable clients.
Many lived in the Temple VA’s domiciliary, a residential rehabilitation facility with nearly 200 beds. Veterans in the work program worked for minimum wage in areas such as housekeeping and food service, at the agency’s 167-acre Temple campus, which also includes a large medical center, administrative offices, a VA police department and a state-run retirement home.
The agency’s Compensated Work Therapy program is meant to help struggling veterans, many of whom have been out of the job market for years, gain the work experience and confidence they need to find a job in the outside world. But veterans assigned to the grounds crew and motor pool in Temple said the program had the opposite effect.
One Army veteran, who asked that his name not be used because he feared retaliation from Nash and other VA employees named in the report, told the Statesman that veterans dreaded being assigned to the motor pool. “You did your best not to go there,” he said, “but they always had open positions because so many people would quit.”
The man, who was not interviewed by the investigative board, said he was ordered to wash vehicles belonging to VA employees and their family members and was once sent to deliver furniture to a VA employee’s house during work hours. “We felt like peons,” he said. “If you didn’t already feel bad about yourself, you did after that.”
Don Peace, the manager of the Temple VA’s vocational program, told investigators that working at the motor pool had done irreparable harm to the veterans who were supposed to benefit from it.
“I think it really affected the veterans … it drove their self-esteem even lower, and then their only way of dealing with it, then, was to go back and either use drugs or drinkin’,” Peace told investigators, according to a transcript of his interview. “And for those that then was working as outpatients that was no longer in the (domiciliary), then they would relapse and just quit showing up, and we would have to try to track ‘em down.”
‘The day of reckoning’
Central Texas VA Director Christopher Sandles said that he initiated the investigation after hearing concerns from employees at the motor pool during focus groups he convened when the VA appointed him to the top position in the region, which includes Austin, nine months ago.
“To me this is a great example of valuing and engaging staff, listening to their concerns and following through on them,” he said. “While they may have been able to get away with it for quite some time, the day of reckoning, in my opinion, is here.”
Sandles said that two employees named in the board’s report no longer work at the VA, though he said he could not confirm whether the staffers had been fired, or even disclose their names, citing potential grievances. “We haven’t closed the door to any additional actions,” he added.
Sandles also said that the final version of the report, which the Statesman requested last month through the Freedom of Information Act, has exonerated at least one high-ranking official recommended for discipline in the preliminary report.
The Statesman has requested personnel information on the employees named in the report through the Freedom of Information Act.
Nash, who worked at the VA for 18 years, confirmed that he was fired after the board’s report. He said he has hired a lawyer to fight the action.
He said he was asked to work with troubled veterans in the program despite not being given any training on how to deal with their physical or psychological issues. He said that far from abusing the veterans, he had helped several find jobs and apartments.
“I’ve been treated like a dog,” Nash said.
While Nash says he had no financial dealings with Whitetail Industrial Parts and Service, the investigative board, chaired by Gregory Vrentas, the administrator of the VA’s Austin outpatient clinic, concluded that Nash and his immediate supervisor, Chris Sebek, regularly used Whitetail to make prohibited VA purchases. Investigators also alleged that a bookkeeping firm owned by Sebek’s wife played a role in submitting fraudulent invoices.
The Sebeks did not return a call to their home or a Facebook message.
Investigators further alleged that multiple VA employees, who were not named, “most probably” helped Whitetail win contracts by providing Pearson, Whitetail’s owner, with confidential bid information from competing firms.
VA officials have referred the most serious allegations of financial wrong-doing, involving contracts and purchases, to the VA inspector general’s office, which has launched an investigation that could result in criminal charges. The report also urged a careful review of all contracts involving Whitetail.
‘We were never here’
Peace, the vocational manager, told investigators he built a spreadsheet to keep track of nearly 50 complaints against Nash of abuse, retaliation and punishment. “It became so overwhelming, there was no other way I could track it,” he said.
Peace said he forwarded the complaints to Sebek and to Sebek’s boss, John D. Summers, the chief of the Temple campus’ engineering division. But he but said the supervisors took no action.
Veterans told the administrative board that the two supervisors profited from their labor.
One veteran told investigators the employees in the motor pool were “like the Mafia.” “Just their way of covering stuff up for each other. This has been going for six, seven, eight years and nothin’ ever done about it,” the man said, according to the board’s report.
Even before the investigation wrapped up, veterans told investigators they were being threatened with physical harm for testifying. One veteran said he moved his family to Mexico after receiving a threatening phone call from someone who referred to him as a “snitch.”
Another veteran said that during a work assignment, he was told to take new shelving furniture to Sebek’s home. Once they had loaded the shelving into the garage, the veteran said Nash informed him it was Sebek’s place.
The veteran said Nash told him: “We were never here.”
Two workers said they were sent to the home of Summers, the engineering division chief, to cut trees and install fencing. One of the veterans told investigators Nash warned him not to interact with Summers at the property. “‘Don’t talk to nobody,’” the veteran said Nash told them. “‘Don’t be over there in this man’s face.’” The veteran said he was paid $60 for the work there.
On another occasion, a veteran told investigators he was dispatched to the homes of two supervisors to work on their sprinkler systems with VA-purchased equipment. Others said they performed automotive repair work on the personal vehicles of VA employees, including brake jobs and tuneups, and repaired Nash’s personal lawn care equipment.
Veterans said their work assignments also included digging up rose bushes Nash directed workers to put in his truck. “They’re all going to my mom’s,” Nash said, according to the testimony. Other veterans recounted being made to chop wood on VA property and load it into Nash’s personal truck so he could sell it later.
Nash denied the allegation. “I don’t steal,” he said. “I work my ass off.”
In all, investigators recommended administrative action against seven VA employees, reserving some of its harshest judgment for Summers, the engineering chief.
“The (investigation) revealed an absolute, protracted lack of managerial oversight and accountability in regulatory practices which led to an unbridled level of; waste, fraud, abuse, theft, resource mismanagement, and (Federal Acquisition Regulation) violations in the daily operations of the engineering service,” the report found.
‘I got my boy in the corner’
As the investigation stretched over the summer, investigators began hearing disturbing stories of intimidation involving Nash, as well as Temple VA police Chief Thomas Carnes, who has since been cleared by VA brass. The VA maintains its own force to police its campuses and buildings.
One veteran told investigators he hadn’t previously complained about activities at the motor pool because Nash “has so many people in his pocket.”
“He reminded me that he is buddy-buddy with the cops,” the veteran testified. He recounted an incident in which Nash called Chief Carnes over to a group of veterans, warning them: “You mess with me, I got my boy in the corner right here.”
Nash called the allegations that he intimidated witnesses “fantastic, outer space shit.”
Investigators concluded that both Nash and Carnes engaged in witness intimidation and recommended administrative action against both.
But Sandles, the VA director, said the report obtained by the Statesman was preliminary. Sandles said a final version had reversed the findings about Carnes, clearing the police chief of allegations that veterans performed yardwork at his home or that he and other members of his force intimidated witnesses who testified to the investigative board.
“I have no concerns with my chief of police,” Sandles said. “He has my utmost confidence. … He is free and clear.”
Sandles said that in the future, the VA campus will implement greater inventory control of lawn equipment and keep better track of government credit cards.
“We are making quite a few changes systemwide to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again.”