AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Atlanta VA fails to conduct criminal checks on employees

The Atlanta VA Medical Center failed its obligation to complete timely background checks and drug tests for hundreds of new employees, an inspector general's report released Monday said.

The hospital allowed employees to work for months, sometimes years, without completing the required background investigations, which includes a criminal history check. Auditors found one case where it took nearly three years to complete the check on one employee. VA policy said checks completed later than 90 days after employment are considered backlogged.

Auditors also found that the Atlanta VA failed to administer drug testing for new employees over a six-month period from 2014 into 2015.

The center's management said it has already taken steps to improve the system failures identified in the report.

"We are proud of the progress we have already made toward our goal of ensuring timely adjudication of background investigations and are committed to ensuring a drug free workforce at our facility," said Atlanta VA spokesman Greg Kendall.

The allegations of the background investigation backlog surfaced in April 2015 when then-director Leslie Wiggins oversaw the hospital. Investigators found that as of July 2015 as many as 200 background investigations languished in the HR office.

A spokesman for Wiggins did not respond to multiple emails and a phone call this week seeking comment.

The backlog went back to at least 2012, but auditors found problems older than that. One nurse had been working since 1998 having just undergone a fingerprint check, but no investigation, the report found.

The backlog seemed to worsen in 2015 after the VA had been engulfed by scandal involving long patient wait times. In a period in 2014, the average time it took to complete the background check was about one month, according to the sample reviewed by auditors.

That shot up dramatically in the first half of 2015 to an average completion time of more than five months.

The lapse in drug testing occurred between November 2014 to May 2015.

Just months after that period, Wiggins was promoted to oversee the VA medical system across the southeast, known as VISN 7.

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About the Author

Brad Schrade is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter on the AJC’s investigative team.