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Topeka-based VA official fired after investigation into inappropriate conduct

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Robert Downs

 

Robert Downs says he takes full responsibility for his actions

A high-level, Topeka-based Veterans Affairs official has been fired following an investigation into inappropriate conduct involving sexually charged correspondence.

Hundreds of messages, most made during regular business hours, reveal that former Health Resource Center director Robert Downs and a female VA employee exchanged salacious chat messages for more than two years. The two used an internal VA system from at least March 21, 2014, to April 29, 2016.

“It was a pathetic action of a middle-aged man trying to rediscover his youth,” Downs said in an interview on Thursday. “I’m ashamed of myself.”

Downs was associate director of VA Eastern Kansas Health Care from November 1, 2015, to October 15, 2016, said VA public affairs officer Joseph Burks.

The woman was based out of the Asheville, N.C., VA Medical Center. In addition to the sexually provocative instant messages, the two also discuss travel plans to see each other, visiting a strip club together, open marriage and the woman’s job prospects at Kansas VA offices.

In July 2016, Downs said he was notified by his supervisor that emails and instant messages sent through VA accounts showed inappropriate conduct between him and the woman. Though she was a subordinate, the relationship was consensual, Downs said, and no one benefited professionally.

He then divulged the affair to his wife June Downs, who said she has forgiven him.

“My husband is a good man who made a mistake,” she said. The two have been together for almost 34 years.

On Sept. 1, 2016, the Office of Accountability Review convened an investigation into the inappropriate conduct. A letter obtained by The Capital-Journal indicated Downs was to testify under oath or affirmation on Sept. 26, 2016.

Despite being under investigation, Downs moved from an associate director position to a director one.

Downs said during this time he requested reassignment and reached out to Member Services acting director Matt Eitutis. Member Services is a VA office with a number of administrative operations on the Topeka VA’s campus, though it’s not tied to the Topeka VA. Six days before Downs was to testify, administrators worked to place Downs in a director position, according to VA emails obtained by The Capital-Journal.

On Oct. 14, 2016 Downs became director of Veterans transportation program under Member Services. Downs said hiring officials were aware of the conduct investigation.

“Mr. Downs took another position within Veterans Affairs for professional growth and opportunity as well as to return to his business administration background,” Burks said in an email last week.

Eitutis didn’t respond to a request for comment on Downs’ hiring with Member Services.

In December 2016, Downs became director of the Health Resource Center, also under Member Services. As director, Downs said he made significant improvements for employees, creating a more positive work culture and decreasing the amount of employee-related arbitration.

In early March, Downs received a proposed disciplinary action: termination. He requested a phone conversation with administrators that occurred on March 20.

On April 12, he received the VA’s final decision to sever his employment.

“This is not the way I wanted to end my career,” Downs said. “I look back at my 13-and-a-half years in the VA as successful. But it is what it is.”

June Downs said she believes termination is too punitive, but Robert Downs isn’t planning on fighting the disciplinary action.

“I take full responsibility for this affair. I take full responsibility for the actions. I am not appealing my termination. I accept it,” the former Marine said. “It was a violation of what I stood for and who I am.”

However Downs said he has reached out to the Office of the Inspector General to see how the messages got to the Office of Accountability Review.

“It seems like it was an infringement of personal privacy and violation of power,” he said.

Downs said he’s ready to move on now.

“Ultimately, I’m glad it did happen because my wife and I are in a better place now than we have been in years,” he said. “We have grown as a couple, and I truly understand and value what I have, and I’m looking forward to the years we have in front of us.”

Last month, the U.S. House passed the VA Accountability First Act. The legislation proposes quicker removal, demotion or suspension of VA employees found to engage in misconduct.

U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins voted in favor of the bill.

“We owe it to our Veterans to give them the best health care that we can. Right now I feel like we’re falling short of that,” Jenkins said. “We can do better, and that’s the goal of that legislation is to just to try to raise the bar and make everyone more accountable so we can get the best service that we can for these folks who have been on the front lines for us.”

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