VA OIG just issued a report into its investigation of a former award-winning civilian team of Army attorneys Robert Fleck and Kristina Wiercinski who engaged in unlawful nepotism after moving to the Department of Veterans Affairs following a long stint at the US Army.
Robert R. Fleck, a senior VA executive and chief counsel within the agency’s contracting division recommended hiring his wife, Kristina S. Wiercinski, for an e-Discovery role within the agency to other senior executives. No one balked at the unethical recommendation and Wircinski was hired into the role.
For some reason, IG named Fleck but masked his wife’s name behind the initials “KW”, as if would be difficult to learn her identity with some digging.
Reality check IG – – it was not difficult. I pulled a Susan Rice and now we know who the real players were in this nepotism scheme.
It is believed her name is Kristina Wiercinski, an attorney still listed with the Department of the Army. She is also listed as a staff attorney at the Department of Veteran Affairs. What synched my research was an Army award announcement discussed below.
The duo has a history of working together both in the private sector and public sector, and apparently enjoyed a great deal of success prior to joining VA.
Most troubling about this case is the realization Fleck is an award-winning attorney, along with his wife, and handling some of the most sensitive contracts the military industrial complex gets tangled in prior to coming to VA.
What is it about VA that seemingly makes everyone forget about standard ethics rules and laws against lying to investigators?
As you will see, given the brazen flouting of ethics rules and subsequent lying to investigators, one has to wonder where the skeletons are in the closet and what other surprises might be lurking.
The recent sale of their $1.2 million beach home (June 2017) is possibly an indicator the two anticipate criminal litigation as fallout of the IG investigation. It’s now back on the market after a remodel for $1.8 million by the current owner.
Fleck and his wife previously worked together in The Law Office of Robert Fleck, but in 2006, the two began working for the US Army.
Fleck worked as an attorney with the U.S. Department of the Army. From 2006 to 2016, Fleck worked at the U.S. Army Communications Electronics Command (CECOM) and served in various positions including General Attorney, Contracts Attorney-Advisor, Supervisory Attorney, Deputy Chief Counsel, Special Assistant Chief Counsel, and Acting Chief Counsel AMC Legal Center.
Prior to her employment at VA, Wiercinski worked as an attorney with the U.S. Department of the Army CECOM from 2008 to 2017 and served as a General Attorney and a Contracts Attorney Advisor.
Fleck was hired in as a senior attorney in 2016 as an SES with a salary of $178,101. His wife started working at the agency January 8, 2017, working as a virtual employee, earning $141,555. Together they earned over $300,000.
US Army Awards Given To Wiercinski And Fleck
While working for the US Army, they won awards together for “leadership and legal advice resolving the largest contract claims filed against the Army,” related to “Logistics Modernization Program (LPM)” in 2013.
AWARD PAGE: Dots-n-Dashes September 2013
[Note: To read the scrambled award publication, you need to cut and paste the text off the Google cache page onto a text document.]
There, Fleck and Wiercinski “were instrumental in making almost all of the Army’s presentations to the judges during the Alternative Dispute Resolution process, reviewing and preparing over 7.5 million documents and spearheading the Army’s defense with regard to obtaining unlimited intellectual property rights,” said Maria Esparraguera, CECOM Chief Council.
According to the Army, “The Logistics Modernization Program is the cornerstone for the Army Materiel Command’s Single Army Logistics Enterprise and will modernize the Army’s national logistics business practice by better supporting technology to meet current and future military readiness requirements.”
The Army award press release said through the use of the Alternative Dispute Resolution process, the LMP Litigation team saved taxpayers approximately over $2B. In addition, the settlement was structured to minimize the fiscal impact to the Army and DoD.
The work the due performed on the LPM was a big deal. So, what happened in 2016 to make Fleck think it was wise to advocate for the hiring of his wife as a subordinate into the Office of General Counsel for contracting?
Given the enormity of the deal at the Army, what do you believe Fleck was brought into VA to actually facilitate? Was it the Cerner electronic health records deal for $10 billion? Or, was it in connection with Leidos and its $6.8 billion deal with VA? Or, is there something on the horizon?
Unlawful Nepotism At Office Of General Counsel
At the agency, Fleck joined senior leadership within Contract Operations.
Contract Operations attorneys work together on contracting related matters for VA. Contract Operations is made up of three law groups: the Procurement Law Group (PLG), managed by Chief Counsel Mr. Robert Fleck; The Real Property Group (RPLG), managed by Chief Counsel Mr. Cameron Gore (SES); and the District Contracting National Practice Group (DCNPG), managed by Chief Counsel Mr. Michael Hughes (SES). Contract Operations is under the authority of Mr. Richard Hipolit (SES), the Deputy General Counsel for Legal Policy (DGCLP). Mr. Hipolit is the senior SES in charge of all law groups, including Contract Operations.
Fleck, Hipolit and Gore received ethics training that included training about conflict of interest laws stating “As a Federal employee, you may not participate in official VA matters involving your spouse, children, member of your household, relatives with whom you have a close relationship.” The training also stated, “If you think you are facing an ethical dilemma related to Government ethics, do not participate in the matter and seek the advice of an ethics official in the Office of General Counsel (OGC).”
After recommending his wife, Fleck helped create the position and played a role in announcing the vacancy he pushed for his wife to fill. To help ensure his wife secured the slot, Fleck even sent her “sensitive data” within an email specifically marked “This message is not to be forwarded to anyone outside of the [VA] or to anyone within the VA that does not have direct involvement/interest with this matter.” His wife at that time was, of course, a person “outside the VA”.
During the investigation, when confronted by IG in the investigation, Fleck and his wife provided false statements to investigators trying to assert sensitive information given his wife was provided after she was selected for the position, but the evidence revealed the couple was being untruthful.
IG On False Statements Regarding Sharing VA Sensitive Data
As Gore originally intended to interview applicants who applied to the e-Discovery position on October 3, 2016, and Fleck shared VA sensitive data with Wiercinski on September 30, 2016, the OIG asked Fleck and Wiercinski if the data was shared to help Wiercinski for her upcoming interview. They both said that VA data was not shared to help Wiercinski on her interview, and the data was not shared until after she was selected for the position by Gore via a telephone call in “mid-September.”
- Fleck said, “What I did send her, after she got selected, she got a call from Cam Gore, it was mid-September, I think, and he said you got the job, this is your interview, you got the job. After that, on September 30th, I sent her what [the General Attorney] had sent me.” (Emphasis added.)
Wiercinski had similar statements:
- When asked if Fleck had provided anything to help her prepare for her potential interview, Wiercinski said, “No. After I was hired, I mean after I was told I had the job, but nothing ever before.” (Emphasis added.)
- When asked what was provided, Wiercinski said, “I think it was summations about the problems, but nothing – like after I got on I think he gave me something, but not before.” (Emphasis added.)
According to IG, these statements by Fleck and Wiercinski raised a serious question, as the hiring panel did not recommend Wiercinski to Gore until October 4, 2016, yet Fleck and his wife claimed that Wiercinski was already selected for the position when Wiercinski shared the VA sensitive data with her on September 30, 2016.
What is quite disturbing is not just Fleck’s actions but also the responses from other senior attorneys Gore and Hipolit.
Wiercinski began her employment at VA on January 8, 2017. Wiercinski is the e-Discovery attorney for the Contract Litigation Team. Her husband, Fleck, is the senior member of OGC’s Contract Litigation Team, and has the ability to direct and assign his wife to litigation matters, as well as the ability to provide feedback and reports regarding her performance.
Gore was questioned regarding Fleck’s ability to influence Wiercinski’s performance. Gore agreed that Wiercinski was hired for the Contract Litigation Team; that she works on the Contract Litigation Team; and that Fleck provided reports and recommendations regarding attorneys assigned to the Contract Litigation Team. When investigators stated that it looked like Fleck could have direct influence on Wiercinski’s performance, Gore said, “Okay. Well, I guess we’ll leave it there.”
What does that mean, “leave it there”? Maybe his comments explain why VA OIG has largely been impotent in reforming the agency through the years vis a vis its investigation. Was Gore telling the investigators what to do?
Additionally, Hipolit was questioned on the potential problem regarding Fleck’s and Wiercinski’s positions on the team and Fleck’s ability to influence Wiercinski performance, Hipolit said,
“Yeah, I mean, there is potential, I think, there for that…I don’t know that that would be an issue because I, uh, for one, I think Mr. Fleck, as I said, is a man of integrity. I don’t think he would do something to influence or — or give any inaccurate information.”
Fleck is a “man of integrity” who misled investigators and engaged in unlawful nepotism with education and training as an attorney who knew or should have known his actions were unlawful… That is a “man of integrity” for Hipolit?
What is Hipolit’s job at VA, again? He is probably some young, low-level attorney, right?
Oh, Hipolit is the Deputy General Counsel for Legal Policy and SES in charge of all law groups at the agency, including Fleck’s contracting group.
Maybe he is confused about what “integrity” means related to ethics and nepotism despite his advanced training in ethics including nepotism?
Is it any wonder, with attorneys giving advice like this, that VA contracting leaks money like a fire hydrant spewing water at full blast?
Conclusion Of IG Investigation Report
The following is taken straight from the report and cut-and-pasted below in italics to give you an idea of the naming function “KW” and the conclusion of the allegations:
The OIG concluded that Mr. Fleck engaged in nepotism and acts affecting his personal financial interest when he used his position to advocate for the employment of his wife and participated in establishing for her a GS-14 e-Discovery attorney position on a team that he would ultimately lead. Mr. Fleck shared VA sensitive data with his wife before she was a VA employee and then made false statements when questioned about it. The OIG also concluded that the hiring process within OGC was exclusive in regards to the hiring of Ms. KW.
Advocating for the Employment of Ms. KW
Mr. Fleck, by recommending his wife for the position of e-Discovery Coordinator, advocated for his wife’s employment. Additionally, Mr. Fleck, as a Chief Counsel in Contract Operations, referred her to Mr. Gore, who ultimately hired his wife, and who, at the time, was a GS-15 Deputy Chief Counsel. There is a direct connection between Mr. Fleck referring his wife to Mr. Gore, and Mr. Gore being influenced by that referral. Mr. Gore reported that he trusted Mr. Fleck to refer someone who was very good for the position.
Acts Affecting His Personal Financial Interest
Mr. Fleck, as the Chief Counsel in charge of bringing the Contract Litigation Team together, participated personally and substantially in a particular matter in which he and his spouse had a financial interest. Mr. Fleck and Ms. KW both had a financial interest in the matter, as the position was a virtual GS-14 earning $141,555 per year. Mr. Fleck participated in the following ways:
- Being involved in the conversation regarding the team having an e-Discovery Coordinator
- Advocating for his wife’s employment as the e-Discovery Coordinator Participating in a discussion regarding pay
- Participating in announcing the position
- Sending his wife VA sensitive data regarding e-Discovery matters that were not available to other candidates.
Contract Operations Ethics Training
Mr. Fleck, Mr. Hipolit, and Mr. Gore all received ethics training which explained the conflict of interest statute by stating, “As a Federal employee, you may not participate in official VA matters involving: Your spouse, children, member of your household, relatives with whom you have a close relationship.” The training also stated, “If you think you are facing an ethical dilemma related to Government ethics, do not participate in the matter and seek the advice of an ethics official in the Office of General Counsel (OGC).”
Despite receiving this training, no evidence was found indicating that Mr. Fleck, Mr. Gore, or Mr. Hipolit sought ethics advice related to the hiring of Ms. KW. Sharing VA Sensitive Data and False Statements by Ms. KW and Mr. Fleck OIG’s investigation determined that Mr. Fleck and Ms. KW made false statements when questioned about sharing VA sensitive data. Mr. Fleck and Ms. KW stated that nothing was shared before she was selected for the position. Investigators subpoenaed phone records associated with the alleged “mid-September” call and found no record of Mr. Gore calling Ms. KW prior to October 4. Additionally, Mr. Gore denied calling her about the position until October 4, 2016. The statements from Mr. Fleck and Ms. KW are not simple lapses in memory or confusion regarding dates, as they both repeatedly testified that nothing was shared with Ms. KW until after she was selected for the position. Mr. Fleck shared VA sensitive data with Ms. KW before she was selected. The investigation determined that Mr. Fleck and Ms. KW made false statements about when
Ms. KW was selected for the e-Discovery position to lessen the potential consequences of Mr. Fleck having shared VA sensitive data with a non-VA employee.
OGC Hiring Process
The OGC hiring process was exclusive in regards to the hiring of Ms. KW. When Contract Operations first mentioned having an e-Discovery Coordinator, Ms. KW’s name was brought up. When Mr. Hipolit discussed the position’s salary with Mr. Fleck, Ms. KW was the one being referenced as “our e-Discovery expert.” An RPLG General Attorney shared documents with Mr. Fleck that were ultimately used to determine the best qualified candidate. When Mr. Fleck made the recommendation regarding announcing the position, his wife was the only candidate. Further, Mr. Fleck was repeatedly included in conversations regarding the e-Discovery position while his wife was the only candidate. In the announcement of the position, Mr. Gore said they were making progress on completing an announcement for his wife to compete; however, the position was announced internally, with an exception made for outside candidates who contacted Mr. Gore directly.
Veterans and taxpayers should be terrified that these senior attorneys allowed this level of obvious nepotism to occur in such a sensitive position managing billions in contracts with government contractors.
In my mind, the report does not go far enough in its allegations since numerous other attorneys were aware of the nepotism and ethics violation but agreed to hire Fleck’s wife, anyway. Why are those senior attorneys and human resources officials not on the hook for failing to catch this problem before the hiring.
Nonetheless, IG reportedly referred the matter to DOJ for review.