Freddie Gray Stands Fast on Her Handling of Sebring Scandal, OPS School Board President Survives Vote to Continue Her Mission
By definition, news happens without warning, which can make it tough for media periodicals that only come out once a month or once week. I recently wrote a dual profile of an Omaha power couple – Omaha School Board President Freddie Gray and Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray – for the August issue of the New Horizons, a monthly newspaper I regularly contribute to. That issue was put to bed when all hell broke loose concerning Freddie’s handling of the already controversial Nancy Sebring incident that saw Sebring resign shortly after being hired as Omaha Public Schools superintendent when sexually charged emails she exchanged with her lover came to light. Newspaper reports revealed that Gray and school board counsel didn’t share some information they had about the emails with the rest of the board. Gray suddenly found herself the target of allegations that she’d breached the public trust and some even called for her to resign or to be removed. Her side of the story is that she didn’t know the full extent of Sebring’s communications and, besides, this was a personnel issue that there’s a whole set of protocols for handling. Also, Gray didn’t want to prejudice the board should they have had to convene a termination hearing over Sebring’s employment. Sebring’s resignation saved herself and the district futther embarassment. The timing of this brouhaha meant there was no chance to update or revise my story. So be it. But I did get the opportunity to do a new interview with Freddie after she was retained by the board in a special vote. The result is this story for The Reader that tries to lay out what it was like for her to be on the receiving end of vitriol and rancor. Through it all, she kept her composure and never engaged in the kind of name calling and reputation bashing that others subjected her to. You can find my earlier, dual profile on Freddie and Ben Gray on this blog, under the title Gray Matters or in the Omaha Public Schools or Education categories.
Freddie Gray Stands Fast on Her Handling of Sebring Scandal, OPS School Board President Survives Vote to Continue Her Mission
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Freddie Gray knows being second-guessed and scrutinized comes with the job of Omaha Public School Board President. But when she came under fire over her handling of the Nancy Sebring scandal she got more than she bargained for, including allegations she’d violated the public trust and calls for her resignation or removal.
Sebring is the former Des Moines Public Schools superintendent OPS hired in the spring only to resign after sexually charged emails she exchanged with her lover became public.
The controversy about what Gray did and didn’t do in response to the scandal culminated at an August 6 school board meeting where a special vote retained her by an 8 to 4 count.
Until the blow up Gray slipped under the radar as a veteran but low profile public servant. She certainly never found herself on the hot seat quite like this. Often overshadowed by her husband, Omaha city councilman and former television journalist Ben Gray, she endured a public referendum on her character despite a seven month record as board president even her detractors don’t fault.
Gray was appointed to the board in February 2008 to replace Karen Shepard and ran unopposed that fall to retain the seat. She serves on local, state and national education initiative boards. Her Omaha school board peers thought enough of her to name her president at the start of 2012. Amidst the recent storm that led to Gray facing removal she refused to say she erred and balked at apologizing.
“Whatever the pleasure of the board was going to be that night it was something I needed to live with,” she says, “but I was not going to compromise my integrity and myself and say I was wrong when that’s not true.
“You can’t buy me that way. I did the right thing, I know I did the right thing.”
Gray asserts she and OPS board counsel Elizabeth Eynon-Korkda acted properly based on what they knew at the time about the nature of Sebring’s emails. Gray says she and Eynon-Korkda treated the matter as a personnel issue and therefore outside the board’s purview because Sebring was already a district employee when the emails surfaced as an issue.
“The personnel issue was the context of what was done and why it was done the way it was done,” says Gray, adding she “didn’t want to poison the well” and risk biasing the board should Sebring come before a termination hearing
When the full extent of the sexually charged emails came to light, Sebring stepped aside.
Gray can live with the “differing views” critics voice but she describes as “troubling” and “disturbing” the anonymous, expletive-filled postal letters and phone messages she says she’s received at home.
“There are people who took advantage of the situation. They didn’t talk about what the issue was, it was just name calling, ugliness. I have grandchildren that were exposed to language totally inappropriate for them to hear.
“I just find those people to be real cowards. You know, if you’ve got something to say to me then man up or woman up and say it to me.”
The negativity was counterbalanced by expressions of support, including her mate’s presence at the July 30 and August 6 school board meetings.
“I have a fabulous husband. He was very supportive. My family of course, not just my children but my sisters, my nieces and nephews. my extended family in Cleveland. The prayer chains people had going on. I had so many emails, phone messages, Facebook posts from people saying they had my back.”
She says her “trust and belief in a Supreme Being was never shaken” though “there was that question of why me and why now.”
Encouraging words too came, she says, from other school district leaders and from peers at the state and national levels. The morning that decided her school board presidency fate she spoke before an assembly of district principals who gave her a standing ovation upon her introduction.
“That blew my mind. I had no clue what to expect when I walked in that room. It was quite moving and a great way to start the day.”
She says perhaps the most hurtful thing in this episode was that her “very long line of public service,” including the Douglas County Board of Health, the African-American Achievement Council and years of mentoring, became obscured.
‘”In a very long history of being actively engaged with the community my detractors tried to define me by one thing. It was heartbreaking that people would do that. It was like everything else I had done in my life was valueless.”
She says she regrets the imbrogolio distracted from the “great progress the board’s been making” and to the “gains” the district’s made in graduation and truancy rates. Her overriding concern now, she says, is moving the district forward, something she expects to still be doing after this fall’s district elections. She’s running against fellow Democrat James M. English, a former OPS teacher and administrator .
Gray says no one can legitimately question her devotion to the district.
“My reason to be there is nothing more than pure academic success for all students . If you look at what I’ve done, the places I’ve been, the people I’ve met, the messages I’ve carried through the community, statewide and nationally you’ll see I’m working very hard for the children of Nebraska and specifically for children in my district.”
Gray oversaw the board’s recent hiring of interim superintendent Virginia Moon and will oversee its search to find a permanent replacement for the retiring John Mackiel. Though she concedes repair needs to be made to a divided board, particularly among members who wanted her out, she foresees no problem getting the work of the district done.
- Gray Matters: Ben and Freddie Gray Fight the Good Fight Helping Young Men and Women Find Pathways to Success (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omaha school board votes to retain president (sfgate.com)
I rarely do stories involving any aspect of law or justice and if I do it’s generally a profile like the following one I did a few years ago for the Jewish Press on Norman Krivosha, who at one time served as chief justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court. As you might expect from someone who has enjoyed a distinguished career on the bench and as an attorney Krivosha is a thoughtful, well-spoken individual. He’s well aware how fortunate he is to have found a profession and vocation that has engaged him for so long. He’s one of those blessed persons who proves that attitude can be everything. He’s definitely of the glass half-full fraternity.
Norman Krivosha’s Life in Law
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Jewish Press
Norman Krivosha’s life is a classic case of the adage that behind every great man is a woman. The noted attorney and one time Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice and corporate counsel may not have been any of those things if the Detroit, Mich. native had not met a certain woman at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln when he arrived as a brash but undisciplined undergrad in the early 1950s.
Krivosha came to UNL at the urging of a cousin who taught microbiology there. The professor saw his cousin’s potential. The young Krivosha was bright. He’d done well at a select college prepatory public school in Detroit. He’d shown industry as a top notch sales clerk for the Mary Jane Shoe Store. He’d displayed an avid interest in politics, handing out pamphlets on the street for a cousin running for public office.
Only when Krivosha got to Lincoln — having never been further west than Chicago – he was the proverbial big city boy let loose in the sticks.
“I had to get out a map to see where Nebraska was. I vividly recall walking downtown the first Sunday I was there and I was the only person on the street. It was such a great transition for me coming from Detroit, but a very valuable one.”
Studying was not a priority. The former Helene Sherman changed all that. The studious young woman from a tradition-rich Lincoln family eventually became Mrs. Helene Krivosha, but long before marrying him she got him on track.
“The truth of the matter is had I not met my wife Helene when I did I would probably have retired as the general manager of the Mary Jane Shoe Store in Miami, Fla.” said Krivosha, who with his wife retired to Naples. Fla. three years ago.
“When I got to the university I was not very interested in worrying about studies.
But I met her and I’d go over to the library to take her for coffee and she’d say, ‘Well, we can go at 10 o’clock.’ And I’d say, ‘It’s 7 now — what do I do for three hours?’ She’d say, ‘Bring some books.’ So I started studying. Then I started taking some classes she was in so I could see her during the day. And before I knew it I got a Regent’s Scholarship and I was on my way to law school.”
There would be more mentors in his life. Before any of these guided him, however, his immigrant parents, neither of whom completed high school, stressed the importance of education to their only child. His mother was a homemaker and his father one in a long line of dry cleaners.
“Neither of them were well-educated.” Krivosha said. “Both of them were terribly literate. Going to college in my neighborhood was not a common sort of thing to do but my parents were determined that I should. We always talked about me going.”
The dutiful son attended Wayne University in Detroit but didn’t exactly buckle down. Between going to school by day and working for the post office at night, he said, “I was running with my friends.” That’s when he took up his egghead cousin’s offer to live with him in Lincoln and go to school there.
Krivosha carried his family’s hopes and dreams for a better life and finally aplied himself. With the help of Helene, some veteran lawyers and an ambitious newcomer to the political scene, Krivosha enjoyed a fast ride up the political-legal ladder. He readily acknowledges the aid he received along the way.
“I’m a great believer that nobody gets where they get on their own. That they all have help. Quite frankly, I resent when people seem to want to take claim for having made it ‘on their own.’”
From a macro perspective, he knows the opportunities given him resulted from the sacrifices and generosity of folks, some of whom he’ll never meet. He views his achievements as the return on an investment that others made in him.
“I did what I did because somebody in Scottsbluff, Nebraska got up at 4 o’clock in the morning and milked cows and paid his taxes so I could get a Regent Scholarship to go to law school. That’s what helped me become a lawyer and be successful.”
He believes fate has played a part in it all.
“Things work out the way they’re supposed to,” he said. “I was supposed to go to law school, I was supposed to be a lawyer, and that’s where I wound up.”
Funny thing is, he initially only studied law “because some friends were going to law school and that just seemed like something to do.” At some point law became more than a way to pass the time.
“I did well in law school. I finished high in my class. I started clerking in my second year in law school with a firm I ultimately became senior partner of.”
It was soon apparent he’d found his niche.
“I immediately enjoyed it. For me, law has always been a challenge — the ability to seek to analyze a situation, to design a solution. The practice of law was just something I loved to do. I never got up a single morning in my life not looking forward going to work.”
Past tense notwithstanding, he still practices law. This marks his 50th year in the profession. He cut his legal teeth with twin lawyers Herman and Joe Ginsburg in their Lincoln, Neb. firm. Krivosha had already clerked there three years by the time he finished law school. He became a lawyer with the firm as soon as he was admitted to the bar.
He said Herman Ginsburg “was extremely influential in my career. He was one of the best lawyers in the state if not the country — a fine, wonderful trial lawyer. He taught me a great deal.”
The Ginsburgs operated a general practice.
“In the late ‘50s-early ‘60s in Lincoln, Nebraska lawyers were probably what today would be described as country lawyers,” he said. “That is, we did everything. We did a great deal of trial litigation for other lawyers outstate who did not frequently go to court. We represented corporations, we probated estates, we did adoptions, we did divorces, we did personal injury cases. We did anything that came into the office. Our office was in Lincoln but we really practiced all over the state.”
That heavy, diverse case load made a good training ground.
“I think what it did was it made me a better lawyer and certainly made me a better judge ultimately because I had had all that experience.”
As a comparison of just how different his experience was from young lawyers starting out today, he used his daughter Terri Krivosha-Herring as an example.
“My oldest daughter is a lawyer in Minneapolis. A very fine, wonderful lawyer whose practice is limited to mergers and acquisitions. She’s great in her field but I don’t think lawyers today have the same broad background we used to have.”
Terri’s married to Rabbi Hayim Herring. Krivosha’s younger daughter, Rhonda Hauser, is married to lawyer Adam Hauser. “In our family you must either be a lawyer or marry a lawyer,” Krivosha joked. “If you’re smart you marry a lawyer, if you’re not so smart you become a lawyer.”
The Ginsburgs brought on a third partner, brother-in-law Hyman Rosenberg, before Krivosha became a partner with his name on the window. All the while he honed his legal skills he pursued a parallel interest in politics. His law partner Joe Ginsburg was active in Nebraska Democratic politics for years and became a political mentor.
“He sort of led me into it and it was sort of a natural for me. I’d been involved in Democratic politics all of my life and certainly all of my adult life in Lincoln. I was Lancaster Democratic Party County Chairman for a number of years. And I was state vice chairman. I was an alternate delegate for the 1968 National Democratic Convention in Chicago, although I never did wind up going. I was (Nebraska) campaign manager for Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson’s presidential bid.”
He also managed Clair Callan’s only successful Congressional bid — a rare instance of a Democrat being elected from the Republican stronghold 1st District.
Political engagement was another way Krivosha hoped to make a difference.
“I cared. I believed Democrats were providing the answers to the country’s needs. Being involved in Democratic politics was a way of trying to make things better. I was never interested myself in holding public office but in helping others.”
Krivosha’s political stock in the state grew when he befriended a newcomer to the arena named Jim Exon, a future governor and U.S. senator.
“I nominated him as national committee man at the state Democratic convention in Hastings (in the early ‘60s), and that was really sort of the beginning of his political career,” said Krivosha.
Exon was elected Nebraska governor in ‘71 and asked Krivosha to join his inner circle.
“When he became governor he asked me to come be his general counsel,” Krivosha explained. “I didn’t want to leave the practice. And so I made an agreement with him that I would be his general counsel at no pay and I would come to the capitol every morning, maybe till one-two o’clock, do whatever he needed done, and then I would go downtown and practice law for the rest of the day and evening. I did that for four years.
“And during all that time we (his firm) agreed not to take cases involving the state.”
No conflict of interest that way.
“I had really sort of gotten used to that because in 1969 I was loaned by my firm to be City Attorney of the City of Lincoln, and I did that for 20 months.”
By the time Krivosha’s general counsel duties for the governor ended his next entree into state government presented itself when then-Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul White “unexpectedly resigned” in 1978. Krivosha inquired if Exon would be OK if he submitted his name for the seat, which for the first time was to be appointed rather than elected.
Exon gave his blessing and Krivosha said just to avoid any hint of impropriety he didn’t speak with the governor from that moment until after he got the nod.
“There were 16 of us whose names were submitted and Jim (Exon) had an incredible way of advising you you’d been appointed. He sent a letter to everyone who had not been appointed, but you, telling them who had been appointed and thanking them for applying,” Krivosha recounted.
“I was in Judge Dale Fahrnbruch’s court on a Friday morning about to start trying a lawsuit before him. He and I had both been candidates for chief justice. He was opening his mail on the bench as we were getting ready to begin the case and he stopped suddenly and said, ‘I think we better take a recess.’ He called me into his chambers and said, ‘I suppose you’re not going to want to try your case today.’”
Krivosha didn’t know what the judge meant. It was left up to Fahrnbruch to inform him he was the state’s new chief justice. “That’s how I found put,” Krivosha said. He made it to the highest judicial seat without prior bench experience.
“Not unheard of,” he said. “You have to also remember I was the first appointed chief justice (of Nebraska). Up until then all the members of the Court had been elected and we had just recently changed to the merit selection system. It’s probably more common to have people come from the District Court to the Supreme Court, but not unheard of. There were people elected before and certainly there were people appointed later who had not been judges before.”
Not only was he serving his first judgeship on the state supreme court, he was perhaps the youngest member of that august and senior body.
“Some of the members of the court called me ‘Sonny,’ which they were entitled to. I mean, I was 44 years-old and some of them were in their 60s. But they were wonderful. It was a great experience.”
He’d argued many cases before the Nebraska Supreme Court prior to his appointment. After leaving the bench he argued cases before the court again, but only after all the members he’d served with had retired. from the court. While admitted to the U.S. Supreme Court he never argued before it.
He said his becoming chief justice was dependent on three key factors.
“You have to work very hard in law school and graduate at or near the top of your class. You then have to spend the next 20 years as a lawyer gaining a reputation of being a fine lawyer. And you need to become a close friend of a governor. And if you can’t do all of them, you must at least do the last one.
“The fact of the matter is I guess I can honestly say I did all three. I graduated well in my class, I think I had a reputation of being a good lawyer, and I was a close friend of Jim Exon.”
What made he and Exon click?
“We were both committed Democrats. We both felt the same way about things. I think we got along so well because we shared the same views about family, about ethics, about integrity,” Krivosha said. “He would never ask you to do anything you’d be embarrassed to tell your mother…He always did what was ethically and morally right even if it wasn’t politically right, but for him it always turned out to be politically right.
“Jim Exon in my view was one of the world‘s greatest public figures.”
Krivosha was Exon’s last appointment before he left to serve in the U.S. Senate in 1979. For Krivosha, serving on the bench was another facet of a rich legal career.
“I’ve been a practitioner, I’ve been a trial lawyer, I’ve taught, I’ve been a judge and I’ve been a corporate counsel. All of it was satisfying. I enjoyed very much the collegiality with my colleagues on the bench. I disagreed with them occasionally but nonetheless had a very close relationship with them.”
A fellow Nebraska Supreme Court justice, Judge Nick Caporale, was a classmate of Krivosha’s at UNL and remains a good friend.
Being a judge suited Krivosha.
“I enjoyed looking at the cases, trying to conclude an appropriate legal answer, but even more than that I guess as executive head of the judicial branch of government I enjoyed the administration of the court system.”
He introduced some innovations.
“We made some changes along the way,” he said, “many of which still exist today. We did away with the municipal courts in Lincoln and Omaha — merging them into the County Court system. This was a more efficient way at a financial savings. We instituted type-written briefs in the Supreme Court — doing away with printing the briefs — which certainly was a savings to litigants.”
He also instituted measures to ease the volume of cases heard.
“There was no Court of Appeals then, so the Supreme Court was a court as a matter of right. You could appeal to the Nebraska Supreme Court from Small Claims Court and we had to take the case,” he said. “So we appointed two district judges and we sat in divisions of five instead of a court of seven, which the statute allowed, in an effort to try to cut down the number of cases and to handle the volume in a more expeditious way.”
While presiding on the bench he wrote more than 600 opinions, meaning he decided far too many cases to single out just a few. Besides, he said, “once I finished a case I finished it. It’s done, it’s done. I didn’t have any second thoughts once I decided a case.”
He does take satisfaction, however, in knowing some of his dissents ultimately became the law. He was the lone dissenter when the court ruled a landowner with a ranch bisecting two states could not transfer water from Nebraska to Colorado to feed his cattle.
“I dissented on the basis it interfered with interstate commerce — that he had a perfect right to do that — and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed. It was reversed based on my dissent”
He said it’s unusual the highest court in the land opted to hear this water rights case in the first place since the Nebraska Supreme Court is usually the last word.
He served eight years as Chief Justice, stepping down in 1987.
“I did not leave because of any unhappiness. I delighted in being Chief Justice. I was 53 years old, about to turn 54, and somebody made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
Bankers Life Nebraska in Lincoln hired him as senior vice president, administration, and chief counsel and when the company became Ameritas Life Insurance Company he was executive vice president, secretary and corporate general counsel. He later worked as general counsel for Kutak Rock.
He retired a couple years ago.
Reviewing his long legal career is not something that occupies much of his time.
“It’s not my style to look back,” he said.
Still, he said, “I’ve been fortunate enough to do almost everything a lawyer can do.” All his years trying and hearing cases did not sour him on the system but rather reaffirmed his faith in it.
“I’m just more convinced it’s as good a system as I always believed it to be. I believe that courts by and large do a good job. There are exceptions. The law is an art, it is not a science, and therefore the answer you get depends on the question you see. The job of the lawyer, for instance, is not to convince the court what the law is but to convince the court what the question is. Once that happens the answer becomes obvious.”
These days he does a bit of arbitration work and sometimes litigates cases. Mostly, though, he serves as an expert witness in insurance fraud suits. His keen political mind is attuned to the presidential race. He reads The New York Times and watches the Sunday public affairs programs. Barack Obama’s chances excite him.
“Obviously as a Democrat I’m a great believer that we need to move in a different direction,” he said.
Is he ever tempted to return to the bench?
“No…Remember, I never look back.”
Where Community, Neighborhood and Representative Democracy Meet
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
South Omaha Neighborhood Alliance (SONA) meetings at the Omaha Police Department’s Southeast Precinct bring together neighborhood association leaders with public servants for a Frank Capraesque community forum.
It’s classic American democracy in action. Dozens of participants at an August 5 meeting listened to reports from Southeast Precinct captain Kathy Gonzalez, mayoral liaison Roger Garcia, Omaha City Councilman Garry Gernandt and various SONA members. Anyone who wanted an opportunity to speak was afforded the chance.
Violent crime, graffiti, robberies, burglaries and drug-prostitution activity have been on the rise this summer, Gonzalez reported. Some neighborhood association presidents confirmed the same, posing specific questions about police response.
Frank, yet measured discussion ensued for two hours, even on hot button topics like Mayor Jim Suttle’s proposed tax hikes. Gernandt, who represents south Omaha’s District 4, addressed the city’s budget woes, fielding questions and recommendations. Neighborhood leaders also announced activities happening in their neighborhoods.
SONA serves as sounding board, network, organizer and catalyst for neighborhood residents and local government in addressing issues and sharing news.
“The advantage is anytime you bring people together to share information, best practices or activities then it can spur ideas that enhance neighborhoods” said Hanscom Park Neighborhood Association president Mike Battershell. He said SONA neighborhoods like his often “team up” to tackle cleanup and beautification projects.
SONA members are volunteer activists and advocates dedicated to making their community more livable. President Duane Brooks said, “It’s a labor of love.”
Battershell said he finds satisfaction in helping affect change in “my own backyard.”
For a neighborhood association, especially a small one, having its lone voice heard above the din is difficult. SONA amplifies things with its coalition of 45 neighborhood associations and community service organizations. Together, they raise the roof and speak as one unified voice to public-private partners and members.
“If you only have a hundred households, you don’t carry the same weight or clout with city hall or the state legislature that you do with more people, a larger constituency base,” said SONA member Don Preister. He should know. He served the interests of south Omaha in the Nebraska Legislature. He currently serves on the Bellevue City Council.
Back in the ‘90s Preister set in motion events that led to SONA.
“It was apparent we needed a greater area of south Omaha represented,” he said. “If one part of south Omaha had a problem then if we stood united we could bring more resources, more people, and we could get more city, county, state assistance. I invited all of the neighborhood association officers to a meeting and asked what they thought of the idea of us all banding together. It was unanimous, so we formed the organization.”
Originally called SONAR (South Omaha Neighborhood Action and Response), the group merged with the South Omaha Neighborhood Association to form SONA.
By whatever name it’s gone, Anita Rojas has seen the power of collective action. Her home looked out on the abandoned Wilson packing plant, a massive eye sore that posed safety problems and drove down property values. As Highland South Neighborhood Association president, she joined SONA’s efforts in getting the city to clear and abate the site. Today, it’s home to the $75 million Salvation Army Kroc Center. She said SONA helped turn a once “hopeless” scenario into something “beautiful.”
Currently, SONA’s Preister and others are working with public and private interests in the search for a south Omaha lead staging area. SONA members contributed to the South Omaha Development Project master plan. Some, like Preister, are working on its implementation. SONA’s keeping a close eye on the project, all part of holding themselves, project leaders and elected representatives accountable.
“SONA’s been an excellent conduit for sharing information, for uniting and bringing additional resources together,” said Preister. “Prior to SONA it was rare that elected officials would be a part of these meetings and activities but since the forming we’ve had the mayor attend somewhat regularly. We have state senators and city councilmen attend nearly all the meetings. We have the ear of elected officials, we have the ear of business owners for cooperating and being good neighbors and working with neighborhoods. We’ve got action on code enforcement.
“It was largely through SONA the police decided they could do something about graffiti. We worked with the police, we worked with prosecutors, then we got the judges on board and they recognized this is a crime against our community and the neighborhoods. Now we’re getting prosecutions.”
Gernandt regards SONA as a vital collaborative between government and citizenry:
“What better place could an elected official go to get 30 leaders of various neighborhood groups and organizations in one room for information and feedback? It’s a very open forum. If there’s anything the alliance can do to help government and if there’s anything government can do to help the alliance, we have the ability to make that connection.”
It’s not about bashing elected officials or making complaints.
“One thing SONA has done exceptionally well is not focus only on the problems,” said Battershell. “We’re as much about solutions and responding to neighborhood needs and being a pro-active partner with the city rather than only calling when there’s problems.”
Gernandt appreciates SONA’s approach, saying, “This group has never played the blame game. It’s always had constructive criticism.”
Very rarely do I write anything that even edges up on hard news. This story from 2000 is one of those exceptions. It had to do with complaints filed against the Omaha VA Medical Center and the watchdog role local veteran activists assumed in agitating for change and monitoring government responses and remedies. The Department of Veterans Affairs has a spotty even inglorious and sometimes infamous track record in attending to the medical needs of servicemen, past and present, and horror stories abound of poor conditions and treament experiences in veterans’ facilities. Of course, much good is done as well. But given that problems persisted before the last solid decade or more of returning combat vets requiring care the problems have, from I gather, only mutiplied in the crush of patients overwhelming the system.
From the Archives: Veterans Cast Watchful Eye on the VA Medical Center
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
A Call for Action
Last September saw the release of a long-awaited federal report stemming from an investigation by the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of Inspector General into complaints about the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) program at the Omaha VA Medical Center. The investigation followed requests by Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, to examine complaints made to them, many in impassioned letters and phone calls, by veterans.
After the October 1999 investigation, nearly a year passed before the inspector general issued a 50-page report substantiating such concerns as insufficient staff, poorly coordinated services, long scheduling delays, inadequately administered drugs and a weak patient advocacy program. Other beefs, including allegations about negligent care, were not supported. Kerrey characterized the findings as showing “there are serious problems…inside an organization that is for the most part dedicated to high quality care.” The report made 16 recommendations for addressing the problems. Concurrent with the PTSD review the entire medical center was the subject of a routine comprehensive inspector general assessment, the timing of which may have been pushed up given the heat coming down from Washington, and its report surfaced more concerns and remedies amid overall good health care practices. In what was described as a coincidence, the center’s director and chief medical officer retired in June.
A hospital spokeswoman said the center has already implemented several changes and is on pace to complete others by target dates. Veterans who called for the initial study are pleased with some changes but assert old problems still persist. Todd Stubbendieck, legislative assistant in Kerrey’s Washington, D.C. office, said,
“Our understanding is everything is being implemented there. We’ve heard no additional patient complaints.”
The reports, written in the cold, clinical language of bureaucratic Washington, mute the rage some veterans express at the insensitive and unresponsive manner in which they insist they’ve been treated. David Spry, vice president of the local chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America, has become a mouthpiece and advocate for their discontent. His own experiences as a post traumatic stress disorder patient (in Lincoln), as a veterans legal custodial aide and as a past Veterans Advisory Committee member at the Omaha VA facility put him in a unique position to assess center practices and to glean feedback from the veterans community. Much of the discord has centered on a few key staff members and administrators and their perceived arrogance toward veterans. “They treated us with disrespect and that’s what a lot of the complaints are about,” Spry said. “It’s like, They’re the system, and we’re only veterans. What do we know? They thought we had no brain, no mouth, no nothing once we left their building, but we were comparing our notes about this place with other veterans groups.”
Spry turned veterans’ dissatisfaction into a cause that eventually got lawmakers and government oversight bodies to take action. For Spry, a Vietnam combat veteran, the process of getting officials to finally take seriously the red flags he and others originally raised more than three years ago has been an odyssey akin to battle. The role of whistle blower has taken its toll, too. “It hasn’t been easy. In 1997 we started to complain vigorously to VA management about this. We got nowhere. Our complaints never even got into the minutes of the meetings of the Veterans Advisory Committee. The things we were concerned about were problems we didn’t seem to be able to get corrected internally, so we went to a congressman,” he said, referring to former Rep. Jon Christensen (R-Neb.). Veterans aired grievances to Christensen and VA officials but, Spry said, little headway was made. “Then, when Christensen became a lame duck, we were kind of at a loss.”
Making the Case
That’s when, in 1998, Spry and fellow Vietnam Veterans of America service officers brought complaints, which grew in the wake of a national hospital accreditation survey, to the inspector general office, the Senate Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs and Kerrey. Spry said a year elapsed before Kerrey’s office took serious interest. Then, at the request of top Kerrey aides, Spry and his comrades were asked to gather veterans’ gripes and, once Kerrey saw the more than 100 letters of complaint, he asked the inspector general office to get involved. At the time, Kerrey said, “…this Vietnam Veterans post has made a persuasive case that something’s going on here that’s not good.” According to Spry, “This organization of ours really became quite passionate about this. We really pushed very hard. We had a lot of people looking into this and we finally got somebody to listen to us. It helped tip the scales when Sen. Kerrey came on board.”
Long before the inspector general weighed-in, the VA Medical Center followed-up its own internal program review by inviting the director of the VA system’s National Center for PTSD, Fred Gusman, to conduct an on-site assessment of the Omaha PTSD program in July 1999. Hospital spokeswoman Mary Velehradsky said, “We recognized we did have some systems problems as well as some patient care issues, and our inviting Mr. Gusman was a way to have another set of eyes look at that and to fix the problems and to make it a stronger program.”
Gusman’s findings of a “systemic problem” was confirmed by the inspector general, which included Gusman’s data in its report. He has made a follow-up visit to the hospital and, with inspector general staff, is overseeing program modifications.
By the time the inspector general took a hard look at the Omaha facility, Spry said he was persona non grata with hospital officials. “I became a little too much of an irritant and they banned me from the facility except for medical treatment for my own service-connected disabilities. But that wasn’t good enough. They took away my freedom of speech, too. I am to have no contact with anyone or anyone with me. They’re doing anything they can to shut me up.” Veteran Tom Brady, who worked with Spry to document complaints about the center, said Spry has been singled-out: “Certainly, there are consequences to exposing practices that are subject to sanctions. He’s been one of the driving forces behind a lot of things and now they treat him like he’s a dangerous person.” Velehradsky confirmed the restrictions but added, “There are reasons people can be banned from a facility and I can guarantee you there was nothing connected to the IG (inspector general) incident.” She did not specify the reasons in this case.
As unofficial watchdogs, Spry and Brady chart the center’s progress in making changes. “We’re trying to monitor what’s going on, but we’re limited in going up there. From what we can tell, they have implemented a number of things that we’re really happy about. We’ve seen improvements in scheduling, in medications and in one-on-one therapy. We’ve seen a considerable difference in staff morale. The hospital is a lot happier.” But he and Brady remain critical of some program staff they feel lack expertise in working with PTSD patients. A psychologist whom the majority of complaints was filed against remains while a popular social worker has left. The two veterans also continue to be disenchanted with what they feel is the distant voice veterans have there. “We’re still not a cooperating partner — not because we don’t want to be,” Spry said.
According to Velehradsky the center has long had in place mechanisms for veterans to speak out with management and has recently increased these feedback avenues. She said the PTSD program has been strengthened with new procedures and the addition of specialized staff. She added recent patient surveys indicate high approval ratings and that veterans not wishing to be treated in the Omaha program have the option of being seen in a Lincoln clinic.
It is perhaps inevitable disenfranchised veterans and entrenched VA Medical Center managers see things differently. Where Spry feels “it’s kind of a shame we had to go to this extent to push the bureaucracy around to get them to look at things,” Velehradsky said: “When you have an outside set of eyes look at your program and make recommendations it does make you stronger. We welcome it. It’s been very helpful and we continue to make improvements.”
While Kerrey has termed the VA episode a victory for veterans, the ever vigilant Spry remains wary and vows to carry on the fight if need be. His never-say-die attitude was formed as a Marine in Vietnam while under siege from overwhelming forces at Khe Sanh during the Tet Offensive in 1968. “I kind of made a commitment to myself and to the 1,500 of us who died at Khe Sanh that I don’t ever want to lose another battle again. And that’s why I’ve fought this (VA) thing. Have I been tenacious about this? I certainly have. All I want to do is make things better.”
- Suicidal veterans may not be getting help they need (pri.org)
- Disabled vets increasingly cheated by fund managers (sfgate.com)
- Inspector General Report: VA Understates Delays In Handling Veterans’ Mental Health Claims (theveteransdisabilitylawfirm.com)
- Bill proposed to change PTSD military programs (thenewstribune.com)