A social worker at the beleaguered Phoenix Veteran Affairs Health Care System has been suspended for dressing as a disabled whistleblower for Halloween.
His supervisor, Lisa Benner, was suspended for allowing the worker to wear the costume all day.
The worker, Jeremy Pottle, donned a long, orange wig with a pony tail, drew tattoos on his arms, placed a pillow under his shirt to mimic a beer belly and, according to one co-worker, walked with a limp.
Pottle was imitating Brandon Coleman, a retired Marine suspended Jan. 27 after complaining suicidal veterans were allowed to walk out of the facility without treatment because of inadequate staffing.
“At first I didn’t know it was Brandon, but I suspected it was,” fellow social worker Jared Kinnaman said of the VA’s Halloween dress-up day Oct. 30. “The big belly, the hair, same type of shirt Brandon used to wear. He was walking with a limp, and Brandon walks with a cane. Jeremy put a pillow under his shirt because he is a skinny individual.”
Coleman has testified in a Senate hearing on abuses at the VA and is working with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel on issues of retaliation against whistleblowers.
“I’ve never been more angered or saddened at the same time,” Coleman told Watchdog. “It shows that the corruption and the retaliation runs deep at the Phoenix VA as judged by my former supervisor being in the picture. This was allowed to happen. It was unacceptable to dress up as a disabled veteran/whistleblower.”
The Phoenix VA became the center of a firestorm in summer 2014 when a scheduling clerk came forward announcing dozens of veterans died while awaiting care — on a secret list kept separate from regular appointment books. This led to congressional hearings, a visit by President Obama and the appointment of a new secretary.
Coleman has been on leave awaiting assignment to a new VA facility because, he says, he faces harassment and ridicule in Phoenix, evidenced by a photo showing a smiling Pottle and others in costumes.
The photo was emailed to various employees at the VA and printed at work, Kinnaman said.
Pottle told Watchdog he never intended to offend anyone, and he dresses as coworkers every year.
“It’s kind of a running joke of, ‘Who is Jeremy going to dress up like this year?’” he said. “The VA is full of death. What we do is hard work. We work with a difficult population. We laugh and prank and joke with each other to get through it, and Halloween is just another day.”
Pottle denied feigning a limp and says he has “no qualms with Brandon, he’s a great dude. I sent out emails to various people apologizing.”
Coleman wants none of it. He fired off a letter to VA Secretary Bob McDonald that said, in part:
“I walk with a cane because I blew out my right foot while on active duty in the USMC. I have had 9 surgeries total to my right foot and 6 of those have taken place at the Phoenix VA hospital. Why would Mr. Pottle make fun of me for being injured while on active duty and trying to get care for my injuries at the Phoenix VA hospital as a disabled veteran?”
A spokeswoman for the Phoenix VA said Benner and Pottle remain on paid leave pending the outcome of an investigation, conducted by an outside party.
“We will take corrective action as needed for the employees as well as others in the supervisory chain if their actions are found to be inappropriate,” Jean Schaefer said. “We want a swift resolution on this.”
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