Late in the afternoon of December 4th of 2006, laboratory staff of the Veterans Administration Pittsburgh Health Services (VAPHS) based on an order from Dr. Mona Melhem, the associate chief of clinical services, a few minutes earlier – in less than three hours destroying a unique collection of legionella and other isolates that had been collected by two prominent infectious disease researchers over their nearly three decades of research.
So starts a report following an investigation by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology headed by Congressman Brad Miller of the 13th District of North Carolina. The events described in that paragraph were the unfortunate culmination of several months of what everyone describes as an acrimonious process. The “two prominent infectious disease researchers” are Dr. Janet Stout and Dr. Joseph Vu. Both were fired in July. Both had been working out of the lab at the Pittsburgh VA. Both had collected rare strands of legionella for nearly three decades. On December 4th, months after they were fired, the legionella they left behind was destroyed on the direction of Dr. Mona Melhem, the associate chief of clinical services at VAPHS.
The story behind the events that lead up to the destruction of legionella is a classic case of he said she said. VAPHS claims that Dr. Vu was running a private business out of the lab testing blood samples for legionella. Dr. Vu claimed that VAPHS knew this all along and had no problem with it until he and Dr. Melhem clashed in 2006. VAPHS claims that the legionella was destroyed because they were clearing the freezer where the samples were stored of biohazardous material and the specimens weren’t marked. Dr. Vu claims they were marked and they were destroyed out of spite. Dr. Vu claims that he was in the final stages of making arrangements to move the specimens to a lab at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. VAPHS claims that this wasn’t ever communicated to them. You can guess what Dr. Vu claims about that.
Where the truth lies is something I don’t know and am in no position to decide. The case is currently the subject of a civil lawsuit and so both sides are limited in what they can tell someone like me. What is without doubt is which side the committee blamed. The report was scathing in its treatment of Dr. Melhem. She was accused of being untruthful, vindictive, and not providing any good reason to destroy these samples. The report and investigation were both finished at the beginning of September of 2008. They received plenty of media attention including a report in the Pittsburgh Tribune, the Washington Post, and the Associated Press.
In the beginning of October of 2008, Dr. Anna Chacko arrived at the same VAPHS to become the new head of radiology there. Prior to arriving at the VAPHS she spent fifteen months at St. James Hospital in Butte, Montana. She replaced three radiologists, Dr. William Driscoll, Dr. Jesse Cole, and Dr. Dennis Wright, who had a combined seventy plus years of service to St. James. The radiology department enjoyed consistent seven figures of yearly profitability prior to her arrival. Dr. Chacko figured prominently in no less than four lawsuits while at St. James, including ones filed by each of the three radiologists she replaced.(though it’s important to note that she wasn’t necessarily a defendent in all three. Her actions however played a major role) She left in September with the department seven figures in the red. She took the other three new radiologists with her, and St. James was on the verge of defaulting on millions of dollars worth of radiology equipment payment for equipment Dr. Chacko ordered.
Prior to that, Dr. Chacko spent a year at the Boston University Medical Center until she was removed following complaints of sexual harrassment. She was carried out of Lahey Clinic, her employer immediately prior to that, by security while she screamed
Kiss my big Indian Ass!!
It’s unlikely that Congressman Miller knew any of this about Dr. Anna Chacko. In fact, it’s likely that Congressman Miller knew nothing about Dr. Chacko when their paths in April of 2008. Between October and April, Dr. Chacko spent the next series of months terrorizing the staff at VAPHS including Dr. Mona Melhem. For the next five months, Dr. Chacko’s behavior lead directly to a series of staff, including Dr. Melhem, complaining about Dr. Chacko to H.R. and even to the regional head of the VA Michael Moreland.
Then, at the beginning of 2008, an employee of VAPHS fell awhile in their driveway. Dr. Melhem approved for VAPHS to X ray the employees’ wrist even though their insurance wouldn’t have necessarily covered the X ray.
Again, whether or not Dr. Melhem actually did something wrong in this case is murky. An employee of VAPHS said that the employee health nurse would have, in their view, also approved this X ray. It benefitted the VA because the employee would not have had to take a sick day to have the arm X rayed.
What is without doubt is that Dr. Anna Chacko saw this as wrong. She called the VA whistleblower tip line and accused Dr. Mona Melhem of fraud. In fact, Dr. Chacko was so forceful in her accusations that 1) she got herself identified as a whistleblower and 2) an administrative investigative board was convened. Of course, by then, there were so many complaints about Dr. Chacko’s behavior that the tenor of the board wasn’t about any alleged fraud by Dr. Melhem but about whether or not Dr. Chacko’s behavior was worthy of her being removed from her post. Six of the fourteen radiologists testified. They testified to bullying, threatening, lying, and the creation of a department at war with itself all at the hands of Dr. Anna Chacko.
In April, the board recommeded that Dr. Anna Chacko be removed from her post. Dr. Chacko hired a lawyer, was able to have the results thrown out, and then she reached out to Congressman Brad Miller. On May 15th of 2009, Congressman Miller sent this letter to General Eric Shinseki, the head of the Veteran’s Administration.
In the letter, Congressman Miller sides nearly exclusively with Dr. Chacko. He puts the entire blame for everything that lead up to Dr. Chacko being removed on the same Dr. Mona Melhem. He refers to Dr. Chacko as a “whistleblower”. He calls her allegations “corruption”. He references his own investigation and points out that Dr. Melhem was similarly at fault in that investigation. He says that Dr. Melhem was orchestrating Dr. Chacko’s removal because Dr. Chacko had blown the whistle on Dr. Melhem’s corruption.
Within weeks, General Shinseki’s office gave word to VAPHS to reinstate Dr. Chacko. Dr. Chacko was back at work on August 1. Her behavior was even worse following her reinstatement. The letter itself was used as a tool of intimidation. Her ability to circumvent the process gave her more power. Dr. Chacko was even more aggressive, more vicious and more intimidating. The environment at VAPHS was of terror. Finally, at the end of October, after much media attention here and a plethora of complaints that reached as high as the regional director, Michael Moreland, Dr. Chacko was put on indefinite administrative leave and another adminstrative investigative board was formed. While I have no confirmation of those results, a reliable source assured me that Dr. Chacko would never again work at the Pittsburgh VA. Her resume now indicates she’d like to go back to Boston.
At the bottom of Congressman Miller’s letter, Congressman Miller refers questions to his chief investigator on the committee, Edith Holleman. In fact, it was Ms. Holleman that confirmed writing the letter to Walter Roche of the Pittsburgh Tribune. The same Ms. Holleman was the lead investigator on the legionella investigation. She’s still employed in that capacity for Congressman Brad Miller. Ms. Holleman didn’t return an email for this story. Congressman Miller’s office has refused to return many correspondences in regards to this story.