Interview: Paula Pedene and Doug Williams
Paula Pedene, with writer Doug Williams, penned her provocative story as a whistleblower working for the Phoenix VA hospital. The pitch for A Sacred Duty won over Book Pipeline judges immediately, as it’s a stark admission of corruption and self-serving greed in one of America’s most critical institutions.
Paula, while there’s no fair way to summarize A Sacred Duty in a soundbite, give us the overview. What prompted you to call out the deception of certain execs in the Phoenix VA system?
PP: I just couldn’t stand by and let them continue to hurt our veterans and our staff. As a long-time Phoenix VA employee, I had worked hard to help build it into a “top performing hospital.” Now when we could have been healing from the prior missteps of the former director, we were being thrown into another mess. I cared so much about the staff and patients, we just had to “right the ship.”
How could this have gone on without anyone noticing? Or was it more of a case of some turning their eye to a massive problem?
PP: Unfortunately it was a case of those turning an eye to the situation.
I wrote my first letter as “anonymous” to the VA Office of the Inspector General, the Office of the Medical Inspector, the Joint Commission, Secretary Eric Shinseki, Arizona Republic investigative reporter Dennis Wagner, and others on April 17, 2013. A pharmacist and I worked together on the letter to highlight the waitlist and the way the leaders were putting patient requests for appointments on paper rather than on an electronic list, which had become standard within the VA. We also highlighted cases of veterans we knew who were falling through the cracks and provided dozens of examples of declining staff morale. What we didn’t know was that the leaders in Phoenix would get a copy of the letter. We thought VA Central Office would send teams in, investigate, and then deal with leadership. Had they done that, the outcome might have been different. Of these entities, only the Joint Commission came in and investigated. They talked to the person who was responsible for the waitlist and the pharmacist who I helped write the letter, and they also sent an inspector into the library to see if I was truly incorrectly detailed there. They left without doing an exit briefing. That is never a good thing for a facility. They were taking information back to assess, but it was just pieces. I didn’t feel I could come forward and talk to them, because I was already “in reprisal” and I knew the leadership was looking for anything to fire me.
It took another year before the whole thing “blew up,” which is sad because so many patients could have been saved in-between had someone listened. My employee representative, Roger French, and my attorneys were writing letters, too, with information I was giving to them that I was seeing or that others were sharing with me. I was also asking for help from Dr. Sam Foote, who knew it was a mess and who had so brilliantly led the whistleblowing charge against the previous leadership in 2010. When he put the spotlight on it through the media and Congress is when the waitlist scandal finally come to light.
You partnered with Doug to write the book. How did you two connect?
PP: Doug had heard about my story through a mutual colleague. He and Donna, his writing partner, came out and met with my husband Bill, myself, and our sons. Although we were interested in seeing what Doug could do with his interest in writing a movie, it was also an opportunity for me to talk with Doug and Donna McKenzie about the book. Doug sent me a sample of a movie concept, and through that I could see he was a great writer. Although I had sent the book to a few people in its raw form, I knew that if I asked Doug and Donna to help me tweak and edit it, the story would come to life. I had written a blow-by-blow with all the letters intact. Doug is making it a compelling story.
Doug, it’s clear what drew you to the material, but there are so many bare facts here that needed to be established for the reader to fully grasp the situation, intertwined with Paula’s own identity as a veteran herself. What was the best manner in which to tell the story? Where was the starting point?
DW: The question on starting point is an interesting one at a couple of levels.
First of all, I was furious about what had happened to Paula, absolutely furious, and the deeper I got into it, the madder I got. I have a background in politics and thought the book needed to embrace that anger and serve as an indictment of the government. But after meeting her, Bill, and the boys, my writing partner—who while not writing this book is my editor and sounding board—convinced me it was really a human story about truly good people taking on a truly bad system that had the people, resources, and will to crush them. So while we still had an important story to tell, it was just as critical to tell it through Paula’s eyes, and to some degree her family’s, as it was to tell it through the prism of my anger.
Second, Paula had a lot of documents—I mean, a lot of them. Emails, dueling letters, memos, transcripts, newspaper articles. . . . The stack was probably two feet high. We had to go through all of them and identify the material that was important to telling the story; we got it down to maybe four or five inches. With that as a chronological jumping-off point and Paula’s first draft of a manuscript, we started to shape the storyline.
Without going into too much depth (unless, of course, you’re comfortable going into depth. . .), Paula, how much of a toll did this take on your family? When we look at whistleblower stories, it can be easy to forget just how brave—I’d say heroic—the person must be to put themselves in such a vulnerable, potentially life-altering position. Logistical hurdles aside, how did you overcome the personal hurdles?
PP: It was devastating to me and my family. I became severely depressed, and I couldn’t snap out of it. I started counseling, which helped, and I found a Traditional Chinese Medicine specialist whose medicine worked without making me ill (others I had tried did not agree with me). I had to give up my VA healthcare at this time, because I didn’t know who was on my side, or who might take something I would say, or be affected by, back to Sharon Helman, the hospital administrator who wanted me out. I got shingles and other illnesses. It was a daily struggle to just get up and get moving. There was a dark veil that seemed to go with me everywhere I went. I now know some of the rigors people face with mental health issues, as they just do not go away. I looked for other employment for a while, but that didn’t go very far because they’d read about my plight in the newspaper and would be wary to hire me. I often thought about quitting, but my employee representative would always tell me that I couldn’t, that I would win my case, and I just had to tough it out. His guidance, and that of so many others who were truly angels during my trial, gave me the strength I needed to persevere.
But the hardest thing for me even to this day was what it was doing to my family. Our oldest son Robert became anxious and started making some difficult choices because he thought it was better if he was “out of the house” and I’d have one less thing to worry about. I missed him terribly, but we had to support him as he was trying to find his way. Our youngest son Steven had finally turned a corner and was back in traditional high school. That brought us joy, but then his ups and downs became more frequent. We started taking him to counseling and decided it was best to get him into an outpatient mental health program. Through this, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which was another blow. Bill, who was normally a quiet and gentle spirit, became angry at the VA and others.
You can say it was a time of great sadness for our family, and that lasted two years. Added to this was the financial strain, as I had to pay my legal team each month for services. We borrowed against our life insurance, our house, and drained our IRAs.
When the dust settled, is that when you said, “Okay, now I have to write a book,” or did it warrant deeper consideration?
PP: The book came about after I was selected by the Public Relations Society of America as Public Relations Professional of the Year. After my settlement, I created Public Relations Ethics Case Study, using my story as a backdrop. I wove in the importance of ethical values such as service before self, do no harm, have respect for an individual, etc, and I was asked by numerous PRSA chapters to present it. It was after those presentations that people would come up and say to me I needed to write a book. So I did. The book took me a year and a half, because there were times I just didn’t have the strength to go back to the sadness and the despair. But when I did, it was as if there was an angel guiding me in the writing. The story would just flow, and through the writing also came healing. I’m glad I did it, and I’m grateful to Doug and Donna for helping us to turn it into something that is more compelling than my textbook tale of woe.
Having endured such an ordeal, was there nevertheless still a feeling of incompletion? That you had to keep this abuse of power in the national discussion to prevent it from happening again?
PP: For the longest time, I felt like the media needed to keep the spotlight on Phoenix and VA. And I kept that fire going by posting every story I could find on my social media channels. Some people criticized me for doing that, but I felt the exposure would help ferret out the unethical leaders. We thought it was just the leaders in Phoenix, but in the end, many facilities were reviewed, and several leaders left. It was a hard time for VA. I was disappointed the FBI didn’t prosecute, but in the end the Phoenix leaders were fired, and that was one step I felt needed to happen to keep this from happening again. There are still some additional staff who I felt should have also been removed as they were a part of the senior leadership at Phoenix, but I’ve learned to let go and let God guide me through this experience.
Was it cathartic? Completing A Sacred Duty?
PP: Writing the book had a way of helping me heal. It took time for me to get to the point where I could dedicate time to it and complete it. But when I did, there was a great healing that occurred. No one should ever have to endure such torture for the truth and doing the right thing for our veterans, but maybe this story can help shed a light on that. VA is really a great health care system, and I have returned to it as my primary provider of choice. Does it have flaws? Yes. But it also has many great components. First, the majority of staff is truly dedicated to serving veterans; second, they are keen on providing the best care in an integrated model of care nationwide—which no one else offers; and third, they are constantly innovating. The system has great potential as long as we have the right leaders, and I do think we have them in place now.
And Doug, plunging headfirst with Paula into this project, has it changed your perceptions in any way, be it political or otherwise?
DW: I grew up in a military family. My dad was an Air Force lifer. He was wounded in Korea and served in the early stages of Vietnam. When he was in the service, the service took care of him; after he retired, the government took care of him.
So I came into this from a perspective of assuming that his experience was the universal experience for veterans. While that may have been the case then, Paula’s story reveals that now, the care and treatment of veterans has become compromised by ambition, greed, politics, bureaucratic infighting, and gamesmanship. That’s unconscionable, and I believe that Paula’s efforts to put a spotlight on the abuses will in some way right this ship and restore our collective faith in the government’s ability to help those who have served and protected us.
Listen to Paula's appearance on Reckless Creatives podcast.
PAULA L. PEDENE, APR, Fellow PRSA holds the Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA) highest honors including the PR Pro of the Year Award, the Western District Platinum Service Award and three Silver Anvil Awards for Institutional Programs, Reputation Management, and Community Outreach.
Paula Pedene was one of the first Whistleblowers at the Phoenix VA. In 2010, she collaborated with Dr. Sam Foote in exposing funds mismanagement and a hostile work environment. Their allegations were sustained by the Office of the Inspector General. When new leaders arrived, they were suspicious of her and she became mired in conflict. They removed her from her role as a VA Public Affairs Officer, a role where she had performed admirably for 23 years and banished her to the basement library where she checked books in and out, put the daily papers on racks to read, and logged patients onto hospital computers. While in the library, she learned of the waits and delays for veterans seeking care at the Phoenix VA. Once again in collaboration with Dr. Sam Foote and other trusted colleagues, she worked behind the scenes to expose the VA Wait Time Scandal. This time her disclosures ended up at the highest levels of the agency, forcing the resignation of the VA’s Under Secretary for Health and the Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Her case was handled by the Office of Special Counsel, an employee representative Roger French and Attorney Josh Klinger from Minahan, Muther and Klinger PC a federal law firm out of Colorado. Together they were able to win her whistleblower case with an agency settlement.
As part of that settlement, Pedene continues her public relations counsel as a federal employee within the Department of Veterans Affairs, Veterans Health Administration, Office of Communications. Here, she provides national guidance for public relations counsel and strategy that impacts hundreds of thousands of employees and numerous stakeholders. For the most part the agency has worked to support her in her current endeavors and have held up their word in embracing whistleblowers into the fold. However, she still comes under scrutiny from those who are unwelcoming of whistleblowers.
Pedene volunteers her time as the Coordinator of the Phoenix Veterans Day Parade, serves on the board for Honoring America’s Veterans, and is a guest columnist for the Arizona Republic creating “The Veterans Voice Column.”
Pedene is married to William Pedene and they are blessed with two sons. She has a hereditary eye disease which causes tunnel vision and is a disabled Navy Veteran. She attributes her success to a supportive family and her faith.
Follow Paula: Twitter
DOUG WILLIAMS has a background in politics, media, communications, and government relations. He is also a novelist, playwright, filmmaker, and award-winning screenwriter.
Mr. Williams is a former journalist, editor, and columnist; worked as a press secretary in the U.S. Senate; and served as chief creative writer and senior vice president for public relations and public affairs at a large regional advertising agency. Additionally, he has managed corporate communications, branding, and marketing functions in both the public and private sectors, and provides corporate training in more than 30 disciplines, with a focus on storytelling.
His first screenplay, Black Star Rising, inspired by the life of Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan and based on a play he was commissioned to write, was optioned by an independent producer in Los Angeles; earned Best Female Character honor in the nationally known A Feeding Frenzy competition; and was a semi-finalist for the International Screenplay Award for drama. After being detoured in typical Hollywood fashion, it is now back on the market and he has rewritten it as both a play and a film to reflect the current political climate.
His short film, In the Time of Dangerous Men, has been an official selection in multiple film festivals. His latest screenplay, Killing Time, is a thriller about a young woman who inexplicably begins to age and how her search for answers threatens to expose a global conspiracy behind the discovery of a genetic fountain of youth.
His novel Nowhere Man, a political thriller, was published in June 2014, with critics comparing it to House of Cards and Homeland, and he is now writing a new book tentatively titled The Compound. He is also a playwright with four New York credits, and his latest drama, The Boundary, enjoyed a successful and profitable run in Houston during the spring of 2016.
Follow Doug: Twitter