WASHINGTON — The first months of 2021 saw the progression of a number of high-profile criminal cases involving VA employees charged with harming the patients they were tasked to serve.

In January, Robert Levy, a former pathologist with the Ozarks VA Healthcare System, was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison for manslaughter and mail fraud and ordered to pay $497,000 in restitution for incorrectly diagnosing diseases then faking medical records to cover up his errors. 

Levy served as chief of pathology and laboratory medical services at the Fayetteville VA from 2005 until 2016, when he was suspended for being intoxicated on duty. After a three-month treatment program he was allowed to return to work under the condition he maintain his sobriety and submit to random alcohol and drug screening. 

During his years at VA, Levy was responsible for reviewing thousands of lab results. Investigators eventually discovered that many of those tests had been mishandled due to his alcohol abuse. This resulted in diseases going undiagnosed and patients dying as a result. 

In one case, Levy conducted a workup of a biopsy from the lymph node of an Air Force veteran and rendered a diagnosis of diffuse large B cell carcinoma. He also made a false entry in the veteran’s medical record stating that another pathologist agreed with his diagnosis. In actuality, no other pathologist agreed, and one had actually written to Levy, concerned that the diagnosis was wrong and urging him to perform other diagnostic tests. 

Levy did not conduct further tests. The veteran died in 2014 of small cell carcinoma as a direct result of Levy’s misdiagnosis, which prosecutors described as “grossly and criminally negligent conduct that demonstrated a wanton and reckless disregard for the veteran’s life.”

The mail fraud aspect of his crime came between 2016 and 2018. His return to VA following his treatment program for alcohol abuse included agreeing to random blood and urine screenings. Noncompliance would result in the loss of his medical license. 

To circumvent these screenings, Levy ordered a personal supply of 2-methyl-2 butanol (2M-2B), a chemical substance that creates a state of intoxication but is not detectable through routine screening. In July 2017, Levy had a package containing 2M2B shipped from a chemical supply company in Virginia to his residence in Fayetteville. Because this utilized a commercial interstate carrier in furtherance of criminal fraud, it fell under the statues of mail fraud.

“Seeking Justice”

“There is no more important work for our office than seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our communities in Western Arkansas,” said Acting U.S. Attorney David Clay Fowlkes. “The victims of this case are people who gave selflessly to ensure the safety and security of the United States. They deserve the best medical care that we can provide for them. They deserve to have doctors in charge of their treatment who are dedicated and vigilant, just as these victims were in their service to our country. Instead, this defendant’s criminal conduct in this case caused irreparable harm to the victims and their families.”

Also in January, Jonathan Yates was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison for sexually abusing veterans while employed as a doctor of osteopathic medicine at the Beckley, WV, VAMC.

Yates pleaded guilty in September 2020 to three felony counts of deprivation of rights. According to the plea documents, the veterans he abused had sought treatment to manage chronic pain through osteopathic manipulative therapy. In court several patients described how, during the course of manipulating their limbs, he would also rub their genitals and, in the instance of at least one veteran, digitally penetrate them. 

“Yates committed hideous crimes in a hospital room, which should be a sanctuary for patients,” said FBI Pittsburgh Special Agent in Charge Michael Christman. “The facts of this case are disgusting, and these patients and their families deserved better care.” 

The final stage of the most notorious of VA’s current criminal cases—that of Reta Mays, the nursing assistant who pleaded guilty to murdering seven of the veterans in her charge at the Clarksburg, West Virginia VAMC—has been delayed. Sentencing for Mays was expected to occur in mid-February, but her defense attorneys argued that coronavirus delays had limited their ability to meet with their client. They also told the judge they still needed to obtain May’s records from the federal government and secure an expert on PTSD prior to sentencing. Her sentencing is now scheduled for May 11-12, 2021.