AUGUSTA — The chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee said Friday that the panel is concerned by a loophole that allowed VA Maine Healthcare Systems-Togus to hire a chaplain who killed his wife without Togus officials knowing of his conviction.

The remarks from U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., came after a tour of the hospital and surrounding buildings on its campus with U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine’s 2nd District, the committee’s top Democrat.

The comments were in response to a March article in the Kennebec Journal about the past of James T. Luoma, a Pentecostal minister and Vietnam veteran who is now the head chaplain at Togus.

In 1986, he was convicted of murdering his wife, Sherry, in Ohio, but an appeal led to a new trial, a guilty plea to manslaughter and a shorter sentence. A model inmate by all accounts, Luoma left prison in 2004 and became an ordained minister.

By 2011, he had a chaplain job with the federal Department of Veterans Affairs in Dayton, Ohio. In October, Luoma, now 63, was hired to lead Togus chaplains.

Past felonies don’t necessarily bar applicants from federal jobs, and Luoma would have had to pass a federal background check when hired in Ohio. In many cases, those checks can’t look back more than nine years.

David Rankin, who retired as Togus’ chief human resources officer in 2010, said Togus officials wouldn’t have been able to see Luoma’s first background check. That’s because a VA hospital hiring someone who has worked at another one must rely on the first hospital’s check if the person is being hired for a similar position.

That informational loophole is raising questions in Washington. On Thursday, Miller sent a letter to Eric Shinseki, the Veterans Affairs secretary, seeking information on how the department manages background checks before hiring ex-convicts.

Miller’s letter, provided by Veterans’ Affairs Committee spokesman Curt Cashour, said the department “must provide a safe environment in which veterans may seek religious care … so good judgment and thorough due diligence are essential when evaluating the suitability of potential employees.”

Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 370-7652 or at:

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