Deborah Amdur, director of the Department of Veterans Affairs' White River Junction, Vt., hospital was appointed by Secretary Bob McDonald to a special internal panel investigating why the agency's Tomah, Wisc., facility prescribed so many opiate drugs that it became known as "Candy Land."
McDonald appointed Amdur to the Tomah Administrative Board of Investigation, according to a knowledgable congressional source who was briefed by the Veterans Department. Past investigative boards have been comprised of about three people, typically officials from other Veterans Affairs locations.
The Washington Examiner reported last week that Amdur misled Sen. Kelly Ayotte last month about conditions at her Vermont hospital, claiming in a letter to the New Hampshire Republican that the facility had not given a recalled drug to a veteran and then hid the evidence for five years.
Records obtained by the Examiner showed that the veterans hospital had done both, and that Amdur had reviewed evidence showing as much shortly before writing Ayotte.
Amdur's past investigative reviews appear to be less than thorough. She said that the department did "several reviews" to determine whether a veteran's medication had been recalled, but found no information.
The first two results in an Examiner Google search for the pills' lot number, however, were a recall notice from the Food and Drug Administration and another recall from the drug's manufacturer.
The Administrative Board of Investigation is the official internal inquiry into how doctors at the Wisconsin hospital doped veterans with opiates rather than treating underlying conditions, leaving several dead.
Veterans called the Tomah hospital "Candy Land," and numerous employees who came forward with concerns about managers' prescription practices were fired. The department's inspector general investigated, but did not release its results.
The facility's chief of staff, David Houlihan, used the fact that various internal investigations had failed to result in action as a vindication, refusing to resign.
"I've been investigated again and again," he told the Center for Investigative Reporting, "and they've never found anything wrong."
But after media attention, McDonald promised that those days were over, and vigorous reform and accountability were coming to Wisconsin: Houlihan and the hospital's director, Mario DeSanctis, were transferred to other jobs, and the investigative board convened.
Dan Caldwell, legislative and political director of the Concerned Veterans for America, said that if Amdur is in charge of the latest investigation, real change is again unlikely, and that the department has historically been incapable of honest self-assessment.
"This is the perfect example of why the VA — including its inspector general — cannot be trusted to investigate or reform itself. Congress clearly must continue aggressively to investigate the department and pass stronger accountability laws so that this type of behavior does not continue," he said.
Naaman Horn, a spokesperson for the Vermont hospital, would neither confirm nor deny Amdur's appointment to the investigative panel.
The department's Washington headquarters refused to say who was on the board, what qualifications they had, or how they were chosen.
"VA does not publicly comment on the composition by name of Administrative Investigation Board membership. The AIB process is an internal process that gathers protected investigative information for departmental leadership," said a spokeswoman who declined to be named.
Amdur is a social worker by training, not a doctor, lawyer or investigator. She holds the same title as Sharon Helman, the former Phoenix hospital director who oversaw the manipulation of wait-time data that sparked a national outcry. Helman was fired as a result of conduct unrelated to the wait-time data issues.
The same type of board was the department's solution to getting to the bottom of the records manipulation there.
Department leadership established an Administrative Investigation Board in Phoenix, but it was suspended after it was determined that one of its members had a conflict of interest that might complicate holding bad employees accountable, according to the Arizona Republic.