Internal documents show Indianapolis VA offered to ‘protect’ employee after email mocking veteran suicide

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Newly released emails show an Indianapolis VA employee, who resigned last year after sending out an email mocking veteran suicide, was offered protection by her administrators “if the story picked up momentum.”

That revelation came as part of an I-Team 8 investigation which also found that VA inspectors in Washington knew about the email months ahead of time but chose not to investigate.

Former clinic manager Robin Paul resigned last April after a Christmas-time email she sent to staffers in December of 2014 surfaced in March of 2015.

Robin Paul
Robin Paul

The email showed a holiday elf begging for prescription painkillers and later hanging himself with an electrical cord. The clinic where Paul worked at the VA Roudebush Medical Center in Indianapolis helps veterans access care to mental health treatment.

The incident sparked nationwide outrage among veterans groups, which called upon Paul to step down or be fired. She later apologized for what she called “poor judgment” and resigned.

More than 8,000 documents given to I-Team 8

The internal emails, recently released to I-Team 8 as part of a Freedom of Information Act request, reveal the full scope of the fallout.

I-Team 8 sought the records more than a year ago.

They include hundreds of angry emails, some that included death threats against Paul and her family.

One depicted a picture of a noose with the message, “I bought you a necklace, here put it on.”

Among the other findings:

  • Supportive emails from her colleagues stated that the email she sent out was not indicative of the person they knew who cared for veterans.
  • Robin Paul does not appear to have been disciplined until she took leave and later resigned.
  • The internal emails also show Paul remained in her managerial role – and in fact filled in for other supervisors – between the time the email was sent on December 18, 2014 and the time it became public, on or about March 9, 2015.
  • There’s also a large disconnect between what VA administrators said publicly and what they did privately.

When Paul’s holiday email became public, then-VA Roudebush Medical Director Tom Mattice sent out a news release on March 10, 2015 – condemning Paul’s actions and calling them “unacceptable” and not indicative of the care the VA provides.

“The email message that was sent out by Ms. Paul is completely and totally unacceptable. It in no way reflects the attitudes of our staff toward our patients. We take great pride in the quality of care and the empathetic outreach we provide to the veterans we have the honor of serving,” Mattice said in a March 10, 2015 statement.

But privately, Mattice was sending out a much different message.

In a March 9, 2015 email to Robin Paul, Mattice wrote:

I gave the staff some advice on how best to handle inquiries from patients or other staff. I hope that this will be a tempest in a teacup and we can quickly move on, but you never know with something like this. I can’t make you any promises, but I will do what I can to protect you if the story picks up momentum.”

The email continued with Mattice discussing his “personal rant” with the Indianapolis Star.

“When my retirement was announced, I got exactly one sentence in the “Moving On” business page,” adding later, “This really isn’t about you as much as it is the Star trying to sell papers by making us look bad.”

Later that morning, Robin Paul wrote back:

Thanks Tom. Your note means a lot to me. They really know how to hit where it hurts. I hope that you and all other EMT members know how sincere my heart is toward helping Veterans. It’s hard not to take it on a deeply personal and emotional level. I love Veterans and their slant could not be further from the truth.”

In an internal email, never before made public until now, Paul apologized to her staff and supervisors:

I would like to sincerely apologize for any negativity toward veterans or VA staff that has resulted from an email message that I sent to staff on 12-18-14. I take full responsibility for the poor judgment, and offer that the email had no malicious intent and was sent in the context of holiday-related levity to a team of very hard-working individuals who deal with very complex issues on a daily basis in a high stress environment with limited outlets.”

Mattice, who announced his plan to retire from VA Roudebush Medical Center months before the scandal broke, did not return repeated phone messages left at his home or at his new job at another Indianapolis hospital.

When a reporter attempted to contact Mattice in person at his home, a woman who answered the door said he could not be reached and shut the door.

Robin Paul also did not respond to an email seeking comment.

When a reporter attempted to contact her at her home, her husband told a reporter she did not want to be interviewed.

“Anything I say is going to get twisted,” he said. “And we are not going to do that.”

Pete Scovill, who became the spokesman for VA Roudebush Medical Center last spring when a new administration took over, said the incident was “unfortunate.”

When asked if the new administration was troubled by the offer to “protect” Robin Paul, Scovill said:

Absolutely. It was troubling to the investigation, it was troubling to Secretary McDonald. It was troubling to all of us who took a look at this – especially after looking through the emails.
It’s the reason those people are not here. As we’ve said that employee is no longer employed by the VA — the leadership of that team – of that STICC clinic are no longer in place.”

Calls placed to Paul’s colleagues were not returned.

But internal emails, uncovered through that FOIA request, show that there were more than a dozen supportive emails to her, indicating that they knew her “misjudgment” was not reflective of the person who spent years caring for veterans.

One email showed Paul was up for a social worker of the year award before the scandal broke. Afterwards, the Indiana Attorney General’s Office announced that her license would be placed on a temporary suspension.

One supportive email came from Stephen D. Black, the Acting Associate Director for the Durham VA Medical Center in North Carolina.

His email to Paul states: “Just wanted you to know that you are in my prayers. You have been a blessing to so many. This too shall pass, my friend.”

When I-Team 8 contacted Black, he referred questions to a hospital spokeswoman. She returned a reporter’s call the next day, declining to comment on the situation.

Another email said: “My prayers are with you. Need anything let me know.”

Another one of Paul’s supervisor’s wrote: “In know (sic) way does your misjudgment take away from the respect I have for you and the job you do.”

When pressed if Paul had ever been disciplined prior to her stepping down, he said he couldn’t discuss it. When asked if there was ever an internal investigation prior to it become public, Scovill said:

“I can’t speak for the VA. I know that eventually it was investigated and they did the right thing,” he said. “Roubebush administrators are doing more. Roudebush administrators won’t let this happen again.”

Whistleblower comes forward

Among the staffers at the VA Roudebush Medical Center to receive Paul’s email was Sharon Witte.

Witte says she was among the staffers to receive Paul’s email.

“I thought it was inappropriate to send one of those emails out,” Witte said.

When shown a copy of one of the angry emails sent to Robin Paul afterwards, Witte said:

“I think this has really gone too far. I think and I honestly believe. I think if management would have taken appropriate action that stuff like this would have never happened.”

Witte says after receiving Paul’s email she sent it to a local union, her immediate VA supervisors, the office of VA Secretary McDonald and the VA’s Office of Inspector General.

When pressed about what was management’s response, Witte said, “There was no response. Nothing.”

Scovill said he could not comment and could not corroborate details about Witte’s attempt to notify management because he did not know.

A spokeswoman with the VA Public Affairs office in Washington said she would get back with I-Team 8. She returned a call late Friday afternoon to confirm that VA central office in Washington received an anonymous complaint about the email in February, “but by the time we could substantiate” the allegation, VA Roudebush was already taking action, the spokeswoman said.

Cathy Gromek, a spokeswoman for the VA’s Office of Inspector General told I-Team 8 in an email that the OIG did receive an anonymous complaint about Paul’s email in January of 2015 but chose not to investigate.

“The OIG did not take further action on the original anonymous allegation.  By the time we received additional allegations, the facility had already taken action in response to this incident so there was no oversight role for the OIG in this matter.”

RESOURCES FOR SUICIDE PREVENTION

If you have a loved one or know a veteran who is depressed or considering suicide, the VA contends it has plenty of resources to help.

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