U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert A. McDonald speaks during a news conference after a visit to the James A. Haley Medical Center, Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014, in Tampa, Fla. McDonald also met with veterans while touring the facility. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara) AP Photo/Chris O'Meara
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"Do they have any intention on disclosing this info to anyone?"
The Department of Veterans Affairs on Tuesday promoted an official who worked to cover up the outbreak of Legionnaires' disease at the Pittsburgh VA Healthcare System.
The VA named David Cord as the next director of the Erie VA Medical Center. Cord has been the deputy director of the Pittsburgh System, where 16 veterans were stricken with Legionnaires' disease — an aggressive form of pneumonia.
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald has said he would bring discipline back to the VA, but his department just promoted an official who tried to cover up a disease outbreak in Pittsburgh in 2012. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
At least six veterans died from the disease, and the outbreak forced the VA to put the director of the Pittsburgh office, Terry Wolf, on administrative leave. Wolf has since been recommended for removal from the VA because of the scandal, although she has not been fired yet.
Earlier this year, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review obtained emails showing that Cord favored hiding the outbreak from the public. According to those emails, Cord said he didn't want to publicize the Legionnaires' disease outbreak unless "we received a specific inquiry" from the press.
Additionally, when a nurse said the Centers for Disease Control and prevention wanted information about the outbreak, one email obtained by the Tribune-Review said Cord asked, "Do they have any intention on disclosing this info to anyone?"
The Tribune-Review said their investigation showed that Wolf ultimately rejected Cord's proposal to hide the outbreak.
The emails indicated that other officials also wanted to keep it a secret. For example, the former public affairs director, David Cowgill, said a news release revealing the disease was found in a veteran who died would not be sent to the press until late Friday, to minimize press exposure.
"They don't want this on the 6:00p news," he wrote.
Despite these problems, the VA praised Cord's ability in a statement announcing his promotion.
"We are excited to bring Mr. Cord on board as the new director of the Erie VA Medical Center," said Gary Devansky, Veterans Integrated Service Network (VISN) 4 interim director. "His unique leadership experience and insight as an Air Force Veteran will be valuable assets for the facility, the employees and volunteers, and most importantly, for the Veterans we are honored to serve."
The decision to promote Cord is likely to fuel more criticism that VA Secretary Bob McDonald is not being hard enough on senior VA officials after various failures to provide health care to veterans. Congress has passed legislation to allow the secretary to immediately fire senior officials for misconduct, but so far, McDonald has not used this authority.
Instead, he has given employees several days to respond to proposals that they should be fired, which has allowed two senior officials to opt for retirement.
When pressed on the question of discipline, McDonald has said repeatedly that he has asked VA workers to pledge to work harder for veterans, and often sports a pin on his jacket that says, "I CARE."
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