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VA Loma Linda manager promoted after probe recommended firing for creating hostile work culture

A VA Loma Linda Healthcare System manager frequently used racial slurs, required workers to buy him food and drive him to and from work, and then punished those who refused his demands with bad assignments, according to a 2021 federal investigation that recommended he be fired.

However, instead of being terminated for creating a hostile work environment, the manager — identified by multiple sources as grounds department supervisor Martin Robles — was inexplicably promoted.

“There were numerous instances where inappropriate language and racial slurs were used which appears to be a common practice,” a Veterans Administration investigative board said in a heavily redacted 61-page report obtained by the Southern California News Group. “Inappropriate and discriminatory hiring practices were found, which have contributed to the lack of trust, poor morale, and fractured culture.”

The Administrative Investigation Board recommended Robles be removed from employment because of “overwhelming evidence to support that the supervisor was intimidating, exhibited bullying behavior, threatening behavior, and contributed to a hostile work environment,” said a source familiar with the probe.

The AIB investigation, which began on Dec. 9, 2020, and concluded the week of Jan. 11, 2021, included 57 hours of testimony from 36 witnesses and 4,000 pages of exhibits.

Robles also was the focus of two other VA Loma Linda investigations in 2020 and 2022, which substantiated allegations that he fostered a hostile work environment. Details of those two investigations were not immediately available.

Promotion instead of discipline

About a month after the 2021 probe wrapped up, Robles was given increased management responsibilities at VA Loma Linda. His salary in 2022 was $75,000.

“Please join me in congratulating Martin Robles as he has been selected as the new Grounds Team supervisor,” David J. Grzechowiak, maintenance and operations chief, said in a Feb. 11, 2021, email to Facility Management Services employees announcing the promotion. “He will need all of your support to be successful in his new role.”

The AIB determined Grzechowiak ignored evidence of Robles’ misconduct and failed to hold him accountable.

“The board found there has been a long-standing mismanagement and acceptance of behaviors which have continued to perpetuate over time and which have built a culture within that could be described as dysfunctional, toxic, and demoralizing,” the AIB report says.

Information was not available about whether Grzechowiak was disciplined. Neither he nor Robles responded to emails and phone calls seeking comment.

VA Loma Linda officials declined to comment specifically on the AIB investigation involving Robles or any discipline he might have received.

“We aim to ensure a safe, harassment-free environment in a culture where all employees, veterans, and guests are treated with dignity and respect,” Mikaela T. Cade, a spokesperson for VA Loma Linda, said in an email Tuesday, May 16. “It is also incumbent on us to ensure that we do not infringe on the rights of an individual regarding the release of information while providing a clear and transparent response to agency disciplinary processes.”

Past problems

The controversy surrounding Robles follows other troubling incidents involving VA Loma Linda employees.

The VA Loma Linda Healthcare System, which includes the Jerry L. Pettis Memorial Veterans Medical Center and several clinics, made headlines in 2019 when it was discovered that a manager had been convicted of murder.

Then, in 2021, a federal judge reprimanded VA Loma Linda’s top physician for failing to obtain treatment for his mentally ill son, allowing him to amass a small arsenal before torching a Texas synagogue.

Robles’ troubles also have caught the attention of lawmakers, who are demanding answers from the VA.

“Our veterans, the dedicated VA workforce, and taxpayers deserve to know why bad employees are still employed by VA and accountability is being swept under the rug,” said Rep. Mike Bost, R-Illinois, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, in an April statement.

Appropriate actions taken

Appropriate administrative actions have been taken as a result of the AIB investigation, VA Loma Linda’s associate director of resources, Maria T. Nguyen, said in a June 14, 2021, memo to Facilities Management Services employees.

Employee discipline can include verbal or written warnings, reprimands, suspensions or, in some instances, termination, according to the VA. Nguyen warned Facility Management Services employees in the email they could face discipline for publicly discussing the Robles investigation.

However, that admonition hasn’t silenced VA Loma Linda maintenance mechanic Martin Gonzalez, who is among more than a dozen whistleblowers to have repeatedly complained about Robles.

“As we can clearly see in the case of Martin Robles, he enjoyed a certain amount of protection when it came to the actions that he subjected his employees to,” said Gonzalez, a 40-year-old Corona resident. “Certain aspects of the senior executive leadership and human resources at VA Loma Linda failed to take proper action to correct the situation, which shows that there is a desperate need to overhaul both departments.”

Promotion ‘mind-boggling’

Joe Spielberger, policy counsel for the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit watchdog organization, described Robles’ continued employment and subsequent promotion at VA Loma Linda as “mind-boggling,” but not completely surprising.

“We have seen similar issues for years and years involving the VA failing to hold supervisors responsible and not protecting whistleblowers,” he said. “Misconduct by senior VA officials is pervasive and systemic.”

In 2014, POGO launched a secure website where VA workers can confidentially expose abuse and mismanagement at VA medical facilities. POGO received allegations from nearly 800 VA employees and veterans in 35 states who detailed complaints of patient neglect, medication errors and claims of whistleblower retaliation.

“A recurring and fundamental theme has become clear,” POGO said regarding the impact of the whistleblower website. “VA employees across the country fear they will face repercussions if they dare to raise a dissenting voice”.

In 2017, the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act was signed into law. The act increased the VA’s authority to fire employees at all levels, shortened the removal process, and ensured terminated workers are not kept on the agency’s payroll while appealing that decision

It also made it easier for the VA to remove poor-performing senior executives and replace them with qualified candidates. The law also established the VA’s Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection.

However, as of April 3, the VA has stopped using the Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, following an Office of Inspector General report that says the law has “floundered.”

“While Congress certainly should look to strengthen and clarify these statutory provisions, the VA historically has shown little interest in holding senior officials accountable for their misconduct and harm perpetrated against employees and veterans,” Spielberger said. “Unfortunately, this latest decision suggests this cycle of protecting corrupt officials will only continue.”

Whistleblower suicide

The Southern California News Group obtained more than a dozen emails and complaints filed with the VA over five years, all detailing Robles’ troubling interactions with employees.

Among the most prolific whistleblowers was Ryan Joseph Sperry, a former Marine and VA Loma Linda irrigation technician from Moreno Valley who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and alcohol dependency.

He was 43 when he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound on Aug. 9, 2022.

Ryan Sperry was said to have been distraught about working conditions at VA Loma Linda when he committed suicide in 2022, said his partner, Juan Varela. (Courtesy of Juan Varela)

Sperry’s complaints were provided to the AIB

Sperry, in a five-page letter to the VA Loma Linda Human Resources Office written months before his death, detailed how working with Robles and the stress from an ensuing AIB investigation sent him into an emotional and physical tailspin.

“I have begun to drink more than normal, and have been hospitalized with gout, which was due to increased drinking, which I have never had before,” Sperry wrote. “I was hospitalized from chest pains … just starting at the beginning of the investigation.”

Retaliation, intimidation

Sperry complained that Robles has a reputation for taking advantage of new, probationary employees, frequently requiring them to buy him coffee and doughnuts and chauffeur him around for free.

“He basically tells them they need to do whatever he asks them to do, no matter how wrong it might be because he will get them fired or give them less hours if they don’t do so,” Sperry said. “He will intimidate, bully, threaten them.”

Sperry also said that over a two-month period, the grounds crew documented that Robles was tardy more than 15 times, sometimes arriving at work two hours late without putting in for leave.

“He works whenever he wants, starts whenever he wants, leaves whenever he wants, and uses flex time as the excuse,” Sperry wrote.

Another VA Loma Linda employee wrote in an Aug. 20, 2018, memo that he helped cover up Robles’ absences.

“He would call me and have me move his cart in front of the office to make it appear that he was there on time,” the worker said. “Next. he again, would call me to put his cart away to create the appearance that he ended his shift on time.”

On May 11, 2022, Sperry and three co-workers drafted a letter to Steven Simpson, acting assistant chief of Facility Management Services, pleading for a meeting to discuss Robles’ emboldened behavior.

“We can no longer stand for our rights being violated to the extent in which it is affecting our mental/physical health,” the letter says. “Many of us are no longer happy or even comfortable going in to work because of the hostile work environment that we experience regularly from our supervisor.”

In the weeks leading up to his suicide, Sperry was an emotional wreck and feared he was about to be unjustly fired by Robles due to an ongoing dispute over medical leave, said his partner, Juan Varela, 60, of Menefee.

“The bottom line is the VA didn’t do what they were supposed to do with Robles,” said Varela, who was on the phone with Sperry when he pulled the trigger on the handgun that sent a bullet into his skull. “If they had, Ryan would still be with me.”

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