Sharon Helman, Ex-VA Chief in Phoenix, Pleads Guilty to Felony Charge

The former director of the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Medical Center pleaded guilty today to failing to disclose large gifts she received from a VA lobbyist.

Sharon Helman, 45, of Surprise admitted to one felony count of filing a false financial disclosure to the federal government and will be sentenced to probation in April, according to her plea agreement. Helman, who became infamous for the sometimes-fatal delays in medical care that occurred at the center on her watch, was fired in November 2014 for various reasons including failing to report gifts.

Helman wasn't just an incompetent leader. In a scheme dripping with potential corruption, she accepted fancy freebies from a lobbyist and former VA employee whose consulting firm helped business expand their work with the VA.

She hid the substantial gifts she received from the lobbyist in her official financial-disclosure reports to the government, according to the Arizona U.S. Attorney's Office.

The office released a statement describing how Helman  actually had received gifts worth more than $19,300 that year from the lobbyist.

"The gifts included an automobile, a check for $5,000, concert tickets, and two round-trip airline tickets," a statement from the office says.

She filed a false report in 2012 that failed to note $2,000 in gifts. And in 2014, she took gifts valued at more than $27,700.

The lobbyist, who wasn't named on Tuesday by the federal prosecutors' office, was Helman's former supervisor from 2005 to 2009.

"Helman acknowledged that, had she properly reported the gifts and their source, the VA would have done a conflict-of-interest analysis to determine whether her acceptance of the gifts was permitted under applicable laws and regulations," the office said.

Arizona U.S. Attorney John Leonardo says no further criminal charges are intended at this point.

Mark Cwynar, FBI Acting Special Agent in Charge for the Phoenix area, noted that while Helman was receiving only probation, the felony conviction "will permanently attach to Ms. Helman's legacy."

UPDATE: Arizona Senator John McCain released this statement late Tuesday:

“While this is an important step forward in holding Sharon Helman accountable for her corrupt activities while serving as head of the Phoenix VA, the Department's inability to convict Helman for her most serious crimes of wait-time manipulation and whistleblower retaliation has denied the veterans who died waiting for care on her watch the justice they deserve. This failure further underscores the urgent need to eliminate the endless bureaucratic protections that have thwarted any attempt to hold corrupt executives responsible for their role in the scandal of denied and delayed care at the Phoenix VA and hospitals around the nation.”

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.