Federal Union Leader at VA Gets Official Hand Slap After Sexually Assaulting Colleague
A Mississippi leader of the federal government’s largest employee union remains on the job in the Department of Veterans Affair with a mere official slap on the wrist after an investigative board said he committed a gross sexual assault on a colleague.
“Based on the totality of the circumstances, this was a sexual assault,” said a Department of Veterans Affairs Administrative Investigation Board report obtained by the Daily Caller News Foundation. “The testimony provided by the witnesses is inclusive to lead a reasonable person to believe that the reported alleged incident did in fact occur.”
The Mississippi revelation comes as congressional frustration mounts with VA’s failure to hold employees accountable in multiple recent scandals, including officials falsifying wait-times for veterans seeking care and benefits, massive waste and fraud in all of the department’s major construction projects, and the near-complete absence of firings or other disciplinary actions against the civil servants responsible.
House Speaker John Boehner, for example, said in fiery speech on the House floor last week that wait-times were falsified at 101 VA facilities but “just one person has been fired. One. What the hell happened to the rest of them?”
The 2014 report described a claim that American Federation of Government Employees Local 1045 President John Mechanic II sexually assaulted Amy Payton, a nursing assistant for the Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System in Biloxi, Miss. on March 20, 2013.
The report includes testimony from seven other women, as well as that of a criminal investigator who claimed Mechanic had a history of sexual harassment.
“Mr. Mechanic used his position of authority to get Ms. Payton in isolated situations and attempted to take advantage of her,” the report said. “Once isolated, he would make unwanted advances toward her by touching and groping her without permission.”
“The attack was a physical altercation with Mr. Mechanic attempting to pull her pants down,” the report continued. The report continued with a graphic description of the assault.
Mechanic, however, claimed innocence, citing a letter from hospital director Anthony Dawson, who said “the issues involving your interactions with employees reviewed by the recent Administrative Board of Investigation … revealed the allegations were not substantiated.”
Dawson also called Mechanic’s work “crucial” and ordered him to “deal with people/patients with courtesy and civility,” to avoid “discourteous conduct.” He did not explain in the letter how the action described in the board report represented “discourteous conduct” instead of a sexual assault.
“The board is assembled and they do the fact finding,” said hospital spokeswoman Mary Gominger. “The findings do not necessarily set the course of action.” Gominger said fact-finding reports are followed by a review from higher officials. She declined to comment on Dawson’s letter.
The investigative board’s report said Mechanic “presented himself in such a fashion to demonstrate to the board members that he was not only in charge of us, but also in control of us. We concluded that the actions of Mr. Mechanic prior to and on March 20, 2013 were methodical and premeditated.”
Criminal investigator Mark Jenkins told the board that “it appears that [Mechanic] preys on single, black females who are in need of his assistance. This is not the first time I’ve had to interview [Mechanic].”
The report also said Mechanic “has a documented history of this type of behavior” and that “this is indicated by the number of witnesses who gave statements that are unassociated with this incident.”
Mechanic told DCNF he believed Payton filed a false complaint against him to get herself out of trouble for an earlier incident, knowing of previous sexual harassment allegations against him.
“I did nothing but try to help that girl,” Mechanic insisted.
Payton sought union assistance after she received a proposed termination following an incident in which a dementia patient escaped on her watch.
“Once you get your name out there with something sexual, it doesn’t matter if you’re guilty or innocent,” Mechanic said. “You end up carrying that label around with you.”
He also said no sexual harassment cases have been proven against him.
Both AFGE nationally and the chapter headed by Mechanic settled out of court on a lawsuit filed by Michele Cogburn, who claimed Mechanic sexually harassed her and that the union retaliated against her after she filed a complaint against him.
Mechanic claimed Cogburn’s suit was groundless and an illustration of the fact “people game the system to get money.”
The VA has more than 312,000 employees, with at least 271 of them on “Official Time,” which allows them to draw their tax-funded salaries and benefits while working full-time for civil service unions, according to a 2014 investigation by the Washington Examiner.
The AFGE represents two-thirds of the VA’s workforce. Gominger said Mechanic “commits 100 percent of his time to union responsibilities.”
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