The announcement Friday that the Veterans Affairs regional director will retire next month was not greeted with cheers from family members of victims of the Legionnaires' outbreak that led to the deaths of six veterans at the Pittsburgh VA.
While they unanimously believe that regional director Michael Moreland bears at least some of the responsibility for the outbreak, his retirement troubles them, family members said.
That's because of something Mr. Moreland's boss, VA Undersecretary for Health Robert Petzel, said at a congressional hearing in Pittsburgh on Sept. 9 that explored the problems that led to the outbreak, among other issues.
"Dr. Petzel made remarks to the congressmen about someone from the VA who did retire and how, despite problems at the hospital where he worked, the VA then couldn't do anything to discipline him," said Evelyn McChesney, whose husband, John, 63, of Columbus, Pa., is one of the six veterans whose deaths have been tied to the outbreak at the Pittsburgh VA in 2011 and 2012.
She attended the hearing, as did the family of three of the other victims, all of whom were concerned that the retirement move was something that would allow officials to escape any sanctions.
"If [Mr. Moreland's retirement] means it's getting him off the hook, I don't feel happy about it at all," Mrs. McChesney said.
The move Friday sounded doubly suspicious to the families because two weeks ago, Dr. Petzel made a similar announcement that he would soon retire.
"It's not a relief" that Mr. Moreland is going to retire, said Robert Nicklas, whose father, William, 87, of Hampton, was the last of the six victims who died during the outbreak. "It's a cheap way out."
Maureen Ciarolla, daughter of John Ciarolla, 83, of North Versailles, who was the first victim of the outbreak, was angered by the announcement.
"Here we have a man who has had three congressional hearings, a criminal investigation and he'll be able to retire with full benefits?" she said. "Well, at least the veterans will be better off."
The announcement comes as the VA inspector general's criminal investigation into the events that led to the outbreak continues, though VA spokesman Dave Cowgill said in an email that Mr. Moreland's retirement had nothing to do with the outbreak and he was not pressured to retire by the VA's leadership.
In an email to VA employees Friday morning, Mr. Moreland did not mention the Legionnaires' outbreak or the uproar that followed his acceptance of a presidential award in April, three days after a VA inspector general report found systemic problems at the Pittsburgh VA led to the outbreak. The award came with a $63,000 bonus.
"It is with mixed emotions that I inform you I will be retiring as the Director of VA Healthcare -- VISN 4 on November 1, 2013," he wrote in part. "I will always cherish the memories of the magnificent work we accomplished together in improving the lives of those Veterans who have entrusted their health care to us."
During an interview Tuesday, in which Mr. Moreland distanced himself from direct blame in the outbreak, he hinted at post-retirement plans, saying: "I've got 34 years of federal service. I'm 57 years old. I have lots of energy to do something else. And it would not be unusual with someone with that history to find something different to do."
Victor Yu, an internationally recognized Legionnaires' expert who was fired from his VA post by Mr. Moreland in 2006, said he was not surprised by the announcement.
"There's no question his credibility was gone," said Dr. Yu, whose departure, along with his colleague Janet Stout, and the closure of their laboratory there is seen by many as the beginning of the outbreak. "To some degree, I think he lost his mandate to govern."
U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, held two congressional hearings that examined the events that led to the outbreak.
"Michael Moreland is the poster child for the widespread and systemic lack of accountability throughout the Department of Veterans Affairs," Mr. Miller said Friday. "His arrogance and insensitivity throughout the entire Legionnaires' disease tragedy was incredibly hurtful to the families of those who died and absolutely shocking to all veterans and taxpayers familiar with the ordeal."
A union representing many of the VA's employees, the American Federation of Government Employees, "welcomed" Mr. Moreland's retirement, after years of battling him and accusing him of poor management, coverups and whistleblower intimidation in his six years as regional director.
"On behalf of the employees and veterans who have been in harm's way during his long tenure, we feel tremendous relief now that Moreland will finally be leaving the agency," AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr. said. "We couldn't be more pleased to learn that his reign of terror is coming to an end."
But Mr. Moreland had many supporters, too, including former colleague Vinnie Malec, a VA social worker who worked with him in the 1980s and 1990s to create the Pittsburgh VA's homeless veteran support program.
"We were first in the nation to start a homeless program," said Ms. Malec, who retired in 1995. "And he was so passionate about helping the veterans."
"My heart is broken for him," she said Friday. "They crucified him."
Sean D. Hamill: email@example.com or 412-263-2579.