TOGUS — The chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee said Friday that the panel is concerned by a loophole that allowed VA Maine Healthcare Systems-Togus to hire a chaplain who killed his wife without Togus officials knowing of his conviction.
The remarks from U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., came after a tour of the hospital and surrounding buildings on its campus with U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine’s 2nd District, the top committee Democrat.
The comments were in response to a March story in the Kennebec Journal about the past of James T. Luoma, a Pentecostal minister and Vietnam veteran who is now the head chaplain at Togus.
In 1986, he was convicted of murdering his wife, Sherry, in Ohio, but an appeal led to a new trial, a guilty plea to manslaughter and a shorter sentence. A model inmate by all accounts, Luoma left prison in 2004 and became an ordained minister.
By 2011, he had a chaplain job with the federal Department of Veterans Affairs in Dayton, Ohio. In October, Luoma, now 63, was hired to lead Togus chaplains.
Past felonies don’t necessarily bar applicants from federal jobs, and Luoma would have had to pass a federal background check when hired in Ohio. In many cases, those checks can’t look back more than nine years in an applicant’s history.
However, David Rankin, who retired as Togus’ chief human resources officer in 2010, said Togus officials wouldn’t have been able to see Luoma’s first background check. That’s because a VA hospital hiring someone who has already worked at another one must rely on the first hospital’s check if the person is being hired for a similar position.
That informational loophole is raising questions in Washington. On Thursday, Miller sent a letter to Eric Shinseki, the U.S. veterans’ affairs secretary, seeking information on how the department manages background checks before hiring ex-convicts.
Miller’s letter, provided by Veterans’ Affairs Committee spokesman Curt Cashour, said the department “must provide a safe environment in which veterans may seek religious care and spiritual counsel, so good judgment and thorough due diligence are essential when evaluating the suitability of potential employees.”
On Friday, Miller said the issue “definitely concerns each of us on the committee.”
“The VA needs to look very closely at their hiring practices and their ability to check somebody’s background,” he said.
He was in Maine with Michaud for the tour and a roundtable discussion with veterans at Togus. Press joined them on the tour but weren’t allowed at the discussion.
Both Miller and Michaud have been often critical of the Department of Veterans Affairs, which has recently been plagued with sweeping issues, including backlogs of veterans’ disability claims and long waits for mental health care.
But both congressmen had good things to say about Togus, which, for example, has been among the nation’s best at processing claims. Federal data released in November by the McClatchy newspapers said 38 percent of claims at Togus were backlogged, defined as being pending for 125 days or more.
The national average was 58 percent. Of the 56 regional processing offices in America, only Sioux Falls, S.D., bested Togus. There, only 33 percent of cases were backlogged.
Still, Michaud said veterans he and Miller spoke to had many concerns, including veteran homelessness and access to health services.
“No facility is without issues and problems, it’s how their management deals with it,” Miller said. “And you can see either here at the medical center or at the regional office, that, in fact, the management has been good. There’s always room for improvement.”
Though Michaud was in Togus on congressional business, his gubernatorial run against Republican Gov. Paul LePage and independent Eliot Cutler wasn’t ignored.
Reporters asked him about LePage’s veto of a plan to expand MaineCare, the state-federal health care program for the poor. When visiting the 12-bed hospice unit on the campus, Miller and Michaud stopped to talk with Donal Durgin of Winthrop, who asked about Michaud’s switch to state politics.
“I’m making a change,” the congressman replied. “But I’ll still have your back, there’s no doubt about that.”
Durgin, an Army veteran who said he was in the unit recovering from cancer treatment, said there are lots of regular visitors there. Most of them are kids and relatives of patients, he said.
But congressmen, parading through narrow hallways followed and flanked by aides, hospital staff and press?
“That’s different,” Durgin said.