Heartland veterans potentially caught in crossfire of power and control

The Department of Labor conducted an audit of the union in 2014 and 2017. (Source: KFVS)
The Department of Labor conducted an audit of the union in 2014 and 2017. (Source: KFVS)

POPLAR BLUFF, MO (KFVS) - To fulfill President Lincoln's promise "To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan" by serving and honoring the men and women who are America's veterans.

That's the mission statement of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

But, many would tell you that mission is sometimes lost in government red tape.

In Poplar Bluff, Missouri you can add conflicts within the union to the list of concerns that may be causing employees to lose focus on their main task at hand: caring for our veterans.

Doctor Robert Hall is a veteran, and also a physician at the John J. Pershing VA Medical Center in Poplar Bluff.

"We've sort of turned things upside down and now we're union members first, and veterans service second," said Doctor Hall.

He is disheartened by what he said he has witnessed in the workplace.

"I learned there were practices that seemed wasteful and took the veterans healthcare dollar and was spending it in the opposite direction," said Dr. Hall.

Doctor Hall is a retired general surgeon.

He had planned to slow down and enjoy farm life with his wife and family, but for a man who served in the military, had a father and son who served as well, he felt drawn to help veterans.

When he heard about the VA having problems with long wait times, he felt he needed to step in and help with the workload at the John J. Pershing VA Medical Center.

Four years ago he said he was approached by the union and was asked to get involved to serve as a physician representative.

Hall said he quickly saw a number of red flags with bylaws not being followed, and never saw that any union minutes were being taken during meetings.

He addressed his concerns to the administration, then left the union.

"We've sent letters, we've spoken to representatives and high levels in the union and received a deaf ear," said Hall.

Other union members came to Heartland News with similar stories.

"It's bad business all around," said Susie Owens.

Owens is a nurse practitioner at the VA hospital, and said she has tried to stay active in union that represents the hospital employees.

"I was the title 38 representative as well as a permanent member of the bargaining committee," said Owens. "However, once I started asking questions the union president removed those duties from me."

Owens, along with other union members like Toni Stoner, say their concerns continue to mount over what is happening within the AFGE Local 2338.

"I have done everything I know to do and nothing has been done," said union member Toni Stoner.

Their biggest concern is with the leadership in the union, specifically with member elected president Kevin Ellis.

"The current president is not or has not ever followed standard practice with Robert's Rules of Order, or the bylaws, or the constitution," said Owens.

Kevin Ellis is starting his third term as president of the AFGE Local 2338.

He was recently elected to another three-year term.

He said he has nothing to hide.

"When employees have no integrity, they will say anything," said Ellis.

"He continues to use smoke and mirrors and make as if nothing is wrong here," said Susie Owens.

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The Department of Labor conducted an audit of the union in 2014 and 2017.

The 2014 audit found that the Local 2338 did not retain adequate documentation for thousands of dollars in reimbursed expenses. Read the 2014 audit here.

The 2017 audit also found similar problems with record keeping. Read the 2017 audit here.

"We had one finding and it was minor...just how something was reported," said Kevin Ellis.

But in fact, the DOL found recordkeeping violations for both years with thousands of dollars that were not properly documented.

"We have never ever had any money that's been unaccounted for never," said Ellis.

Ellis puts the blame on the previous treasurer, saying she didn't do her job.

"It was her responsibility to deposit the checks and get them in," said Ellis. "Do the record keeping for our portion. She never done [sic] none [sic] of that."

At one point, Ellis said the union had about 300 members out of the 500 or so employees at the hospital.

"When this discord started about money being missing and misappropriated, our membership dropped about 10 to 15 percent."

The Department of Labor did not take disciplinary action against the union.

That includes no action being taken on a report obtained by Heartland News through the VA regarding a VA Police report in 2016.

In that case, officers investigated allegations of embezzlement within the union of more than $200,000.

"We have never embezzled money, never stole money...never, ludicrous," said Ellis.

Ellis is not facing any criminal charges, but it's something Congressman Jason's Smith's office is closely watching.

"We have been in contact with a lot of these employees at the VA," said Congressman Smith. "I actually have one person on my staff just focused on making sure all these complaints are directly sent to the Department of Labor."

Toni Stoner, an LPN at the VA, is the first vice president at the union.

"I am basically a title, that is all I am allowed to do," said Stoner. "He [Kevin Ellis] will not allow me to represent. He will not allow me to do any function responsibility whatsoever in the union."

Stoner said Ellis does not run meetings by the book and makes up his own rules.

"Anymore, people just don't show up, or when they do it's such a fight," said Stoner. The whole time you're there he just stands there and bullies and cusses, rants and raves, bashes the facility, bashes other members."

Bennie Hicks served as the union's chief steward for three years.

"I started to see things and hear things I just didn't feel comfortable with," said Hicks.

He too feels like he has nowhere else to turn.

"We have reached out all the way to the top and have yet to receive any help or results," said Hicks.

Hicks said he was told to handle it locally.

"I think it's just greed and power, feels that it's a dictatorship and he's in charge," said Hicks.

According to Kevin Ellis, the union currently has between 260 and 284 members.

He said he's just doing his job to represent every one of them like, James Vail who was fired in 2016 and said he's about to lose his job again.

"He's doing the right things, he's bringing the facility into the 21st century."

Vail said he was fired for telling someone he was tired of doing their job.

Ashley Whitaker said she too was fired in 2017.

"If you keep burying the issue, it's buried but it's still there," said Whitaker.

She said she was accused of doing something she did not do, and claims she was called a racial slur, but nothing was done about it.

"If the union wasn't there, there would be tons of issues that are unresolved that are just hanging in the air," said Whitaker.

Kevin Ellis' wife, Sonia Ellis, said she was fired from the medical center in December of 2017.

She said she now volunteers as the women and fair practices representative and EEO representative for the union.

She said she has seen a recent spike in EEO complaints.

"There are very deep principal issues dealing with right and wrong at this facility, and anytime you have that you have issues," said Sonia Ellis.

And one of the big questions, is the union fighting too many battles?

For instance, every time the union takes a case to arbitration there are attorney fees. Those fees come out of union dues.

Then, the VA has its lawyer fees. That bill is picked up by the taxpayers, and arguably that money could have gone toward patient care.

According to records from the Department of Labor, Ellis' predecessor spent about $2,800 on arbitrations over 10 years.

Ellis has spent more than $32,000 since 2011.

He said it's justified and he is planning to take several more cases to arbitration.

"We have addressed multiple issues with this agency, and this leadership doesn't seem to want to fix it," said Kevin Ellis. "They want to do it their own way."

He refers to issues like asbestos at the hospital.

Ellis said several employees claim to have been exposed to asbestos in 2012 and the hospital isn't doing anything about it.

He also claimed employees have been retaliated against for being whistleblowers, and also sited racial discrimination.

"I'm not afraid, I'm not scared," said Kevin Ellis. "I know what's just. If I have to be the only one standing."

Before becoming union president, Ellis worked in voluntary services at the VA. He now does union work 100 percent of the time.

Members also claim nepotism is a problem, as Ellis' wife works with the union now, and he appointed his sister as the assistant to the treasurer.

"There is no nepotism," said Ellis. "We don't have time to fight with the chickens. We are trying to soar with the eagles. We have bigger things we need to be handling, like employee safety, employee pay, their compensation rather than fighting about these small issues that don't amount to nothing."

Meanwhile, Congressman Jason Smith said he is very concerned about the allegations being made.

"It has to be addressed because some of the accusations are completely inappropriate and wrong and the Department of Labor is well aware of the different accusations," said Congressman Smith.

This is how Ellis responded when we told him Congressman Smith was investigating him and the union.

"So what I'd say to Jason Smith is we want him to come in," said Ellis. "We don't have anything to hide as a union. But, we have a great deal of issues to deal with in terms of retaliation and issues in the workplace."

Ellis said there is a rally planned for veterans affairs employees on June 8 at 11 a.m. He said the rally is a chance for people to stand up for their rights. It will be held across from the medical center at 1500 North Westwood Blvd in Poplar Bluff.

"Will there always be distractions, yes," said Doctor Robert Hall. "But, at least at this point in time we see a distraction, we know it's there and instead of saying well...this is the way life is and trudge on it would be helpful if we could correct this and show it could be corrected and make one more step toward better care for our veterans."

Both sides agreed, it's time to re-focus.

"Ultimately our goal is to take care of the veterans," said Susie Owens. "Not to be in constant conflict with the agency. Not causing hindering of the mission of the agency."

"Yes, the mission is getting lost with these petty fights," said Kevin Ellis. "The overall goal is completely lost."

Leadership at the John J. Pershing VA Medical Center released to Heartland News the following statement regarding this issue:

"When our employees shared concerns regarding local union officials with facility leadership, we immediately sent the information to the Office of the Inspector General's office (OIG) for investigation.  We care deeply about our team members, but are not able to investigate or influence internal union business or finances; we must defer to outside organizations such as the OIG and Department of Labor.  However, we feel setting a high ethical standard is always in the best interest of our Veterans and employees.

Heartland News reached out to the regional and national offices of the AFGE to see whether either office may be involved in trying to resolve these issues.

We have not heard back from either office.

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