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Surveillance camera removed from VA office in St. Petersburg

A surveillance camera set up outside of the office of the union representing workers at the Veterans Benefits Administration St. Petersburg Regional Office has been removed, union officials say.

Valorie Reilly, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1594 said the camera was removed last week after a story about its installation appeared in The Tampa Tribune.

Last month, Reilly filed a federal complaint that the camera was set up after a fired employee and union official testified about problems at the office to Congress. In her complaint to the Federal Labor Relations Authority, Reilly said that the camera was part of an effort to create a chilling effect on union activities.

In a statement to The Tribune last month, management officials denied that, saying they installed the camera as part of an effort to improve security at the office and that the location was selected by the contractor. Responding to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by The Tribune last month, regional officials said Tuesday that the camera was part of a $350,000 effort that began last year to install new and upgraded security cameras. The contractor, Power Solutions Electric Inc. of Jacksonville, installed 38 cameras between Feb. 5 and July 21, according to Bruce Clisby, a regional office management analyst.

Tuesday morning, Reilly said that while she is glad management removed the camera, doing so only after a newspaper article created pressure raises questions about the intent of putting it there in the first place.

“It was removed literally within a workday of the story,” said local president Reilly. “Friday morning the director asked ‘where’s the camera?’ Monday or Tuesday last week, they removed the camera near the union office. It was obviously the article that did it. If the camera had to do with security, it would have stayed there.”

Neither regional office Director Kerrie Witty nor assistant director Suzanne Nunziata returned emails seeking comment about the camera that was removed. Clisby referred questions about the camera to Nunziata, who he said was out of the office Tuesday and unavailable. Officials from Power Solutions Electric Inc. did not return a phone call and email seeking comment.

Regional office officials also did not respond to numerous efforts to seek comment about the firing of Javier Soto, a ratings specialist and union official. Soto was fired just days after delivering a scathing report about problems at the regional office.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, chided regional office officials for their handling of the surveillance camera outside the union office.

“Unfortunately, it seems the only way to get VA to address problems is by shining the media spotlight on them,” said Miller in an email to The Tribune. “VA could save itself a great deal of time, effort and headaches if its leaders injected just a tad more common sense into their decision making and were more open to constructive criticism from outside stakeholders. Until that happens, however, the bad headlines are likely to continue.”

In responding to the Freedom of Information Act request about the number, cost and location of cameras in the regional office system, Clisby said that officials had been relying on “limited and outdated security cameras which made it difficult to take action on claims of vandalism in and around” the regional office.

As a result, the regional office obtained funding to enhance existing video surveillance capabilities, said Clisby. In August 2013, the regional office awarded a $232,555.47 contract to Power Solutions Electric Inc., which initially called for upgrading existing video cameras and installing new ones. In April, the initial contract was modified and an additional $119,943 was awarded “to replace legacy cameras incompatible with the new system, and to install cameras inside the [regional office] in areas of high foot traffic and in locations where employees meet with the public,” Clisby said in an email to the Tribune.

Clisby would not release the camera locations “as this defeats the purpose of security surveillance. This upgrade allows [regional office] leadership and the VA Police to provide an enhanced response to security concerns in and around” the regional office.

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