The head of the embattled state veterans home at King has been reassigned, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Daniel Zimmerman announced Friday.
Also, in a separate matter, the Wisconsin Department of Administration is investigating an employee who handles DVA public records after he failed to turn over an email to the Wisconsin State Journal that had been provided to the newspaper by Gov. Scott Walker’s office.
The two developments are unrelated, a DVA spokeswoman said.
However, they both come in the wake of turmoil at the King veterans home, which has seen its nursing home ratings decline over the past year amid reports of diminished quality. The facility is under a legislative audit.
Jim Knight had been commandant at King since March 2013. He has been reassigned to the position of Fiscal Compliance Auditor, where he will provide financial oversight for all three of the state’s veterans homes and help craft the department’s strategic veterans homes plan, Zimmerman wrote in a statement to staff.
Deputy commandant Shannon Hardel will serve as interim commandant starting Monday and a search for a new commandant is underway, Zimmerman wrote.
“These changes are a part of my ongoing assessment of operations at Wisconsin’s Veterans Homes and realignment of leadership duties and responsibilities departmentwide,” Zimmerman wrote. “As always, I ask for everyone’s support and continued professionalism.”
The agency also reported Friday that Reid Aaron, a DVA administrator who handles public records requests, was placed on paid leave pending a DOA investigation, DVA spokeswoman Carla Vigue said. His annual salary is $101,130.
The State Journal requested similar records from both DVA and Walker’s office related to the handling of a public records request about a potentially hazardous liquid oxygen leak at the King veterans home. The governor’s office produced one particular email that DVA should have provided, but did not.
After the State Journal asked about the missing email, the agency said it had requested an investigation and placed Aaron on leave.
“The WDVA is committed to a culture that is open, transparent and forthright,” Vigue told the State Journal on Friday in disclosing the investigation.
The liquid oxygen incident occurred May 2, but was not reported to residents or the public. An agency whistleblower wrote a complaint to lawmakers disclosing the incident on Sept. 30.
That same day, former WDVA administrator Rick de Moya requested the liquid oxygen incident report in a public records request. More than two weeks later he received a response from then-assistant deputy secretary Dan Buttery saying “the public records law does not require an authority to provide requested information if no record exists.”
Vigue said previously the report wasn’t provided because the requester asked about an oxygen leak in the Central Services Building at King, when in fact the leak was in an underground tunnel connecting that building to a different building. She also noted de Moya had filed hundreds of records requests with the agency, many of them related to allegations of poor care at the King veterans home.
An Oct. 10 DHS inspection of the facility in response to complaints about the leak turned up no findings of non-compliance. A separate inspection on Dec. 8 determined the incident was a past non-compliance, but it had been corrected and no citation was issued.
De Moya filed a complaint with the Department of Health Services and Walker’s office on Nov. 15 alleging a cover-up of the liquid oxygen incident.
Two days later, Buttery forwarded the liquid oxygen incident report to Walker’s office writing in an email he had provided it to de Moya, which wasn’t true.
That email was provided to the State Journal by the governor’s office, but was not among the emails provided by DVA.
De Moya said the same thing has happened to him multiple times. He said he sent the same request to DVA and lawmakers for communications between Buttery and legislators last summer about a plan to regionalize county veterans services offices, but received records back from the legislators that should have been provided by DVA, but weren’t.
“I can’t tell you how many times it’s happened over the years,” de Moya said. “That’s what happens when you have an agency that’s not very transparent.”
Buttery has since left the agency to pursue work in the private sector, Vigue said.
The State Journal asked Walker’s office for all records related to the liquid oxygen incident. The office provided 248 pages of records at no charge.
The State Journal asked DVA to provide emails to and from Buttery containing the words “LOX” or “liquid oxygen” between September 30 and Dec. 31.
DVA requested the State Journal pay $90 for three hours of staff time to locate the records and charged 15 cents per page. The agency allowed the State Journal to review the records before charging for copies of some of them.
The emails that DVA provided showed that after de Moya made his Sept. 30 request for the incident report, Aaron forwarded the request to Knight, the now-former commandant, who responded on Oct. 3 with a copy of the incident report.
“Here’s the incident report you’re asking about,” Knight wrote to Aaron. “It has nothing to do with Central Services so you can decide whether this report is properly requested by DeMoya.”
In an interview Wednesday in his office, Aaron said he discussed de Moya’s request with Buttery and that it was Buttery who made the decision not to provide the record to de Moya. There were no records provided showing any of that discussion happening by email.
Buttery’s response to de Moya was dated Oct. 6 but not sent by the agency’s public records email account until Oct. 17.
Buttery, who had applied unsuccessfully to replace John Scocos as DVA Secretary, did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
Walker spokesman Jack Jablonski said the governor’s office is “pleased to see that the department is seeking an independent investigation into this matter,” referring to the agency not providing the email to the State Journal.
“We are committed to an open and transparent government and have no tolerance for anything less,” Jablonski said.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to correct the annual salary of Reid Aaron.