MIAMI (CBSMiami) – When asked why he would risk his job and speak publicly, Detective Thomas Fiore considered the question carefully before answering.
“People are dying,” he finally said, “and there are so many things that are going on there that people need to know about.”
Fiore, a criminal investigator for the VA police department in South Florida, contacted CBS4 News hoping to shed light on what he considers a culture of cover-ups and bureaucratic neglect. Among his charges: Drug dealing on the hospital grounds is a daily occurrence.
“Anything from your standard prescription drugs like OxyContin, Vicodin, Percocet, and of course marijuana, cocaine, heroin, I’ve come across them all,” he explained.
Even inside the hospital, he says he was stopped from doing his job – investigating reports of missing drugs from the VA pharmacy. When the amount of a particular drug inside the pharmacy doesn’t match the amount that the pharmacy is supposed to have, a report, known as a “discrepancy report” is generated. Normally it was his job to investigate the reports to determine if they were the result of harmless mistakes or criminal activity. But all that changed, he said, about two years ago.
“I was instructed that I was to stop conducting investigations pertaining to controlled substance discrepancies,” he recalled.
He said he was personally told to stop investigating them by the hospital’s chief of staff, Dr. Vincent DeGennaro.
“I have no idea why,” he said. “He’s the chief of staff he doesn’t have to tell me why.”
DeGennaro declined our request for an interview. A spokesman for the VA wrote CBS4 News: “The Miami VA is required to monitor all controlled substances and resolve inventory discrepancies within 72 hours. Any unresolved discrepancies are reported to the Miami VA Healthcare System Director and Controlled Substance Coordinator, VA OIG, DEA and VA Police for independent investigation.”
Fiore said he decided to contact CBS4 News following our report last month on the death of Nicholas Cutter, a 27-year-old Iraq War veteran with PTSD who died from a cocaine overdose inside the Miami VA’s drug rehab center.
Fiore said it was well-known that Cutter was someone who not only abused cocaine but also smuggled it into the hospital. He said he reported it to his superiors in the weeks before Cutter’s death last year but no action was taken. Fiore said he was amazed the staff continued to give him passes to leave the building.
“He would have been number one on my list of people I would want to stay at the facility, not just for his safety but for the safety of all the other veterans that are in the medical center,” he said.
When Cutter’s body was found on June 1st, Fiore said the staff inside the rehab center failed to immediately call him. Cutter’s room should have been considered a crime scene. Instead, the staff bagged up the body and cleaned the room. He said he only learned about the death two days later.
“I was very shocked to be honest with you that I wasn’t called,” he said.
Fiore claims the way the hospital handled Cutter’s death was typical of the way they try to handle most problems. He said they prefer to keep things as quiet as possible rather than fix the problem.
Referring to drug dealing on the hospital grounds, Fiore said, “It’s been a problem for a while, for a very long while.” But administrators refuse to address it.
Fiore said the dealing usually takes place near the front entrance to the hospital, where patients and other gather to smoke. Patients will sometimes sell portions of the prescriptions they just filled. Other individuals will bring illegal drugs onto the grounds to sell. He said he has seen individuals in the drug treatment program time their smoke breaks so they can do downstairs and meet their dealers.
The VA police, who are all sworn federal law enforcement officers, can do little to stop it. The handful of VA police officers who patrol the hospital grounds are easy to spot since they are always in uniform and are well-known to patients.
“The patients know us, they see us every day,” Fiore said. “So I had brought up a plan to bring in somebody from a different facility where these patients don’t know them and basically go undercover into this [drug rehab] program or into this area at least and try to give us some good leads, so we can try to eliminate or reduce the amount of drugs that are coming in there.”
He said it wasn’t simply a matter of trying to make arrests. He said his goal was “to protect the patients.”
Fiore said he even found someone with undercover experience who was ready to do it. He said he presented his plans to his superiors, but never heard back from them.
“I’m still waiting,” he said. “And it’s been a couple of years now.”
A spokesman for the VA said he is not aware of any “significant findings concerning illegal drugs at the Miami VA Healthcare System.”
Fiore said another reason drug dealing became a problem was the lack of working surveillance cameras inside and around the hospital. The lack of security cameras was an issue the Inspector General raised in its report earlier this year into Cutter’s death. They said the cameras had not been working for at least six months prior to Cutter’s overdose.
In fact, Fiore said, the cameras have not worked for at least four years. In 2010 he was assigned the responsibility of conducting a “vulnerability assessment” of the VA facilities in South Florida. He noted the problem with the cameras back then. As a result of his report, he said the Miami VA was allocated money to improve security. He said he believes the amount was somewhere between $2.5 million and $3.5 million.
But he doesn’t know what happened to the money.
“I can tell you it wasn’t spent on cameras or any of the other recommendations that were made in that assessment,” he said, “because they still have yet to be corrected.”
Fiore said in addition to ignoring the drug problem at the hospital, he also believes the hospital fails to address allegations of patient abuse.
“I know that I’ve seen patient abuse in the nursing home,” he said. “I’ve seen patients with just full black and blues, I’ve seen patients with hand marks on their chest; the hand mark doesn’t match theirs. It’s obvious that it is somebody else’s hand mark.”
He said rather than deal with these issues as criminal matters, the hospital handles them administratively. “A lot of times to make the problem go away they just take that individual staff member, they pick them up and they relocate them to a whole different area” of the hospital, Fiore said.
Asked if he agreed with the idea of handling patient abuse cases administratively, Fiore said: “I think any time somebody gets hit, especially an older person who can’t defend themselves, there should be a law enforcement investigation.”
A spokesman for the VA wrote to CBS4 News saying that all cases of patient abuse are taken seriously and staff members are often moved to other parts of the hospital while the investigation is conducted.
A final area of concern for Fiore is theft.
“Theft is rampant,” he said.
He estimates there are millions of dollars in theft every year from the Miami VA, everything from computers to medical equipment.
“We’re talking government property, we’re talking about things the taxpayers are buying,” he said.
Fiore, who served four years in the Marines before joining the VA police department, knows he may be fired for speaking publicly. He said he thought about maybe being an anonymous source, but believed people would be more apt to believe him if they saw he was willing to talk openly.
“Am I scared, absolutely,” he said. “I can’t begin to explain to you how retaliation works within just the Miami VA. They don’t like people who air their dirty laundry.”
He said he hopes his comments will encourage more congressional oversight.
“As a veteran myself,” Fiore said, “I’ll be honest with you I’m just sickened that they would allow this type of stuff to happen to people that have fought for this country.”
If you would like to contact CBS4’s Jim DeFede, his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.