KNWA/FOX24 Investigation: Questions raised about VA pathologist’s work years before he was fired, charged with involuntary manslaughter

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — It was long rumored that former Veterans Affairs pathologist Robert Levy had a drinking problem, according to people who used to work with him.

Levy went to work drunk at the Fayetteville VA and made hundreds of major errors according to a VA review of all of his past work. Doctors and investigators say those major errors lead to the deaths of veterans. Levy was charged with involuntary manslaughter in some of those deaths in August of 2019. After striking a plea agreement in June of 2020, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for one count of involuntary manslaughter and one count of mail fraud.

FILE – In this Aug. 17, 2019 file photo provided by the Washington County, Arkansas Sheriff’s Department, Robert Levy is pictured in a booking photo. Levy, a former pathologist at an Arkansas veterans hospital has been sentenced to 20 years in federal prison, Friday, Jan. 22, 2021, after pleading guilty last year to involuntary manslaughter in the death of a patient he’d misdiagnosed. (Washington County Sheriff’s Department via AP, File)

KNWA/FOX24 obtained a September 2018 internal investigation at the Fayetteville VA through the Freedom of Information Act. This 800-page report shows how long people suspected Levy’s misconduct, why it might have gone unreported and even speculation someone helped cover it up.

In life, Jerry Kolpek was quiet about his six years in the Army. But in death, he speaks with mementos of service.

“He was definitely proud of it. He had his dad’s flag. He had his mother’s dad’s military medal,” his son Doug Kolpek said.

Keepsakes Jerry Kolpek once stored away were willed to his son Doug Kolpek.

“Even on one of the medals on the box in the back, he has it engraved with my name and my son’s name on it,” Doug Kolpek said.

In 2012, Jerry Kolpek’s doctors first suspected he had prostate cancer. A biopsy was sent to VA pathologist Robert Levy.

“When it came back benign, there was nothing to do. Nothing came of that,” Doug Kolpek explained.

But it was not benign. The cancer progressed for the next six years undetected. By then, he had stage four cancer.

“I feel like still some of the things that happened back then are still not quite known to us yet,” Doug Kolpek said.

It was one of hundreds of major errors Levy made. According to a VA review of all of Levy’s work, in one out of every 10 cases he took on, he messed up. 589 of those mistakes were considered level 3, major diagnostic errors.

After Levy was fired in 2018, the VA decided to review all of his work to check for accuracy. Dr. Margie Scott was in charge of reviewing his old cases. She testified during the January 2021 sentencing hearing, “a level 3 is very rare.” She went on to say, “I had a pathologist that practiced for 50 years and he made one level 3 diagnostic error.”

Jerry Kolpek died in December 2020 due to one of those errors. During criminal sentencing, special agent Kris Raper said “absolutely, with no hesitation”, Levy would have been charged with his death had Jerry Kolpek died sooner. But Levy had already been indicted and reached a plea agreement.

“If some of these reviews could’ve happened sooner, we might’ve caught it sooner. He might’ve had a better chance of treatment, but it just seems all the pieces fell in the wrong way for him,” his son Doug Kolpek said.

Once Levy was fired in 2018, the VA put together an Administrative Investigation Board (AIB) to investigate what people knew, the timeliness of actions taken and why staff might not have reported Levy sooner. After months of trying, KNWA/FOX24 got a copy of the September 2018 AIB report and supporting documents.

The VA employees tasked with investigating the matter found someone raised concerns about Levy’s diagnoses in 2010, two years before Jerry Kolpek’s misdiagnosis. But, there was no evidence those concerns were shared with anyone else until later.

Even more people seemed to know about the rumored alcohol abuse. At least eight of the 25 employees interviewed by the AIB said they had either witnessed or at least heard rumors that Levy had a drinking problem.

One employee recalled seeing him at work. They said, “He was unsteady, almost staggering. He had a very loose appearance, not squared away, I guess. And when he talked, it was almost like he was medicated.”

Another employee said, “it was not a secret.”

Yet another interviewee said, “Everybody in the lab knew about it.”

KNWA/FOX24 also reviewed a separate VA Fact-Finding Investigation from 2015. It revealed there were reports of Levy smelling like alcohol as far back as 2008. He was not fired until 2018 after a drunk driving arrest which violated a sobriety agreement with the medical board. So the question becomes, “why not sooner?” That question was also addressed in the AIB report.

One employee interviewed said, “The perception was that if you brought it up too many times to management, management would get upset.” The employee went on to say that she was told “this other employee could probably bring harassment charges” if a problem was repeatedly brought up to leadership.

Others said leadership did know and chose to do nothing about it, or even helped cover it up. One person told interviewers he or she had heard a manager tell Levy that “you can’t keep getting caught” and “we had a deal.”

“They need not choose between their conscience and their career,” U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough said during a recent visit to Fayetteville.

He spoke to reporters during a November trip to the Fayetteville VA. KNWA/FOX24 asked him what changes can be made after recent inspector general reports outlined failures to ensure patient safety and a lack of accountability for it. He said the VA is focused on becoming a “high-reliability organization.”

“That means it’s an organization that is honest with itself and honest with our overseers including the IG as you talked about, but also, including congress and making sure that we’re responsive and owning up to the mistakes we make,” McDonough said.

The Kolpeks are suing for medical malpractice and wrongful death. In response to the lawsuit, the federal government has stipulated, or agreed, that Levy misdiagnosed Jerry Kolpek and that the misdiagnosis caused his death. But, the U.S. Government still denies negligence on behalf of the VA.

“It’s for sure frustrating to hear some of those things and wonder if things could’ve been different. It seems like to us it could’ve easily been different for him,” Doug Kolpek said.

Instead, New Year’s Eve will mark one year since Jerry Kolpek’s death.

“We have a bottle of wine that he gave us a few years back that we plan on opening up on New Year’s Eve to commemorate him,” Doug Kolpek said.

That bottle of wine is one more memento left for his family; this one to be enjoyed for a night. Others, like the military medal engraved with Doug’s name, are meant to last generations.

“He wanted to make sure that I got those things, and that my son gets those things. So, just going through that stuff — it just makes you realize how important those things were to him,” Doug Kolpek said.

It now is a memorial to Jerry Kolpek’s life.

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