Veterans Home of California Audit (copy)

California Veterans Home in Yountville. A former administrator is suing CalVet, saying he was dismissed for standing up for veteran safety. 

Former Yountville Veterans Home Administrator Donald Veverka says he was fired by the state Department of Veterans Affairs for airing concerns about safety and illegal activity on the campus.

Veverka sued the department for wrongful termination in Napa County Superior Court in October, but the lawsuit was unearthed about a week ago thanks to a Yountville Sun report.

In the lawsuit, Veverka claims that employees of the department, known commonly as CalVet, directed Veverka not to communicate with politicians or leaders, told him that he would be subject to termination if he “told the truth” to a state oversight agency and prohibited him from meeting with a state senator who was working on a bill about CalVet.

CalVet has denied all allegations in the lawsuit and declined to comment further, citing the pending litigation.

“I was devastated (to be terminated). I’ve been depressed about it ever since,” Veverka said in a phone interview. “That’s not the way an individual wants to end their career.”

Claims of broken and inadequate facilities

Veverka was hired as the home’s administrator in April 2014 with a salary of $140,000 per year. He was dismissed in May 2017, according to the lawsuit, and has since been in southern Oregon and caring for his aging mother in the San Diego area.

Veverka said he served as a combat medic in the army, and has a background in skilled nursing facilities and serving veterans.

During his time at the helm of the campus, Veverka claims he reported to his supervisor that one of seven elevators in the skilled nursing facility building was working, and many heating and air conditioning systems were broken, including some that had been broken for years.

“I was stunned that some of these things had gone on for as long as they had,” he said.

He also told his supervisor that people were living in facilities with leaking roofs, or hot or cold quarters, which caused staff to violate fire safety codes by equipping rooms with space heaters, according to the lawsuit. Veverka claims a resident with nerve damage on his lower extremities had to get skin grafts after burning his feet on a space heater.

He told his supervisor, local politicians and the Little Hoover Commission — the state oversight agency which called the campus a “crumbling crown jewel” in a 2017 report— that the lack of preventative maintenance and decades of neglect made the campus unsafe and difficult to operate, according to the lawsuit.

“Clearly the state can and must do better with its veterans homes program, which has grown in the past several years from three to eight homes,” the Little Hoover Commission wrote in a December 2015 letter to then-Gov. Jerry Brown, which referenced testimony in an October hearing.

CalVet denied Veverka’s requests to approve emergency contracts to provide needed, temporary nursing and pharmacy staff, according to the lawsuit.

Veverka tried to get the Yountville home to treat veterans with behavioral health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, and drew attention to the fact that the campus had the country’s largest population of domiciliary veterans but offered little to no behavioral health services, according to the lawsuit.

Veverka said he raised questions about campus security during his tenure and was angry to see the shooting at the Pathway Home — an on-campus treatment facility for vets with PTSD run by a nonprofit. He was told at the time that there was no budget to ensure officers from the Napa County Sheriff’s Office or California Highway Patrol had a greater presence on the campus, he said.

Punished for sounding off?

Coby Peterson, Veverka’s supervisor, told him that he would be subject to termination and hear from the governor’s office if he was truthful in testimony to the Little Hoover Commission, according to the lawsuit.

Veverka claims he objected and believed he was told to commit perjury. In March 2016, he answered all of the Legislature’s questions honestly and asked staff to do the same, according to the lawsuit.

Peterson also prohibited Veverka from meeting with state Senator Richard Roth about a bill to require CalVet to create programs for vets who had behavioral health challenges and were homeless, according to the lawsuit. Veverka claims CalVet blocked the meeting because it didn’t want him to share campus safety concerns.

In October 2016, Veverka received an angry call from a shouting Paul Sullivan, former deputy secretary for communications, who said Veverka was working against CalVet by accepting a meeting with U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald, according to the lawsuit. The meeting aimed to encourage cooperation between state and federal agencies in order to be efficient in delivering benefits to veterans.

Sullivan called Veverka a liar, according to the lawsuit.

CalVet said in an email that Sullivan was with CalVet from July 2014 to November 2016, but declined to elaborate further on why he left the department and said it does not comment on “personnel matters.”

In April 2017, Veverka met with Matt Dana, chief counsel with CalVet, who said he could make Veverka’s departure “happen.” Within weeks, Veverka said he was told that CalVet was going in a different direction with his position.

Veverka believes the timing wasn’t a coincidence, according to the lawsuit.

“When CalVet got word that the Little Hoover Commission was coming to Yountville to follow up in June, they terminated him to ensure he couldn’t continue making his reports,” said Veverka’s attorney, Barbara Figari, in a phone interview.

Veverka said it was made clear to him that his superiors at CalVet saw the Little Hoover Commission as a threat and felt the commission only sought to find problems. He said he felt CalVet held him responsible for the pressure that the commission was placing on the agency.

“I wasn’t very popular with many of the people within the agency,” he said. “Certainly, I encouraged the residents not to shy away from the commission’s questions.”

Veverka said the end of his career was “damaging professionally and emotionally” and cost him a retirement opportunity. He is seeking to be made financially whole, and hopes to see the home move forward for its plans for a new skilled nursing facility, fix up its buildings and get adequate security, he said.

Attorneys on both sides of the case are in the midst of discovery, or requesting documents and information that the other side has compiled for the case. The next court date is set for June 13 before Judge Victoria Wood.

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Public Safety Reporter

Courtney Teague is the Napa Valley Register public safety reporter. She can be reached at 707-256-2221. You can follow her reporting on Twitter and Facebook, or send her anonymous tip at: tinyurl.com/anonymous-tipbox-courtney.