FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
Bipartisan Act Addresses Trainings, Retaliatory Investigations and Accountability
WASHINGTON – The Government Accountability Project supports today’s introduction of key whistleblower protections for U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) employees within the Veterans First Act. Introduced by Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson and Ranking Member Richard Blumenthal, the rights are a major breakthrough in the struggle for VA whistleblowers to gain credible protections when defending the integrity of the agency mission and disclosing quality of care concerns. Further, the Act would provide a system to hold employees accountable for their actions when they retaliate against those exposing waste, fraud, or abuse.
During today’s press conference to introduce the Veterans First Act, Ranking Member Blumenthal stated “This bill will help change not only practices and rules but the culture of the VA … This measure assures that every veteran who works for the VA, every member of the VA staff … is treated fairly and that they can report issues of wrongdoing without any fear of retaliation or revenge.”
The Veterans First Act whistleblower-specific reforms would:
- Establish an Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection that is independent of the Office of General Counsel. The Assistant Secretary for the Office would report directly to the Secretary on all matters relating to accountability and whistleblower disclosures, and submit an annual report to the House and Senate Committees on Veterans’ Affairs (Sec. 101)
- Require VA to develop criteria to promote whistleblower protections, and the criteria would be used in evaluating the performance of supervisory employees (Sec. 102)
- Mandate the Secretary of Veterans Affairs in conjunction with the VA Whistleblower Ombudsman to provide Department-wide whistleblower training on a biannual basis that would: comply with Office of Special Counsel Certification; explain the whistleblower disclosure process; spotlight “anti-gag” protections; and include an explanation that the employee may not be prosecuted or retaliated against for engaging in lawful whistleblowing activity (Sec. 102)
- Require the Assistant Secretary to submit a report to Congress on whether the methods used to investigate employees (including but not limited to peer review and searches of medical records) are retaliatory, and establish recommendations to implement safeguards against retaliatory investigations (Sec. 104)
- Require VA to provide supervisors periodic training on the rights of whistleblowers, in addition to how to address a report by an employee of a hostile work environment, reprisal, or harassment, and how to effectively motivate, manage, and reward employees (Sec. 119)
- Strengthen accountability by forcing merit system violators to repay their bonuses, and require the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to withhold additional bonuses for a designated timeframe (Sec. 122)
In response to these proposals, GAP legal director Tom Devine commented, “The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee deserves credit for seeking balanced, bi-partisan good government reform. This bill combined with teeth in House-passed legislation would create the nation’s strongest legal rights for government whistleblowers.”
GAP also asks the bill sponsors to consider the adequacy of due process protection for those accused of retaliation. A common tactic is to accuse whistleblowers themselves of engaging in retaliation as a pretext for their removal. Along with whistleblowing, due process rights exist to protect the merit system as the essential foundation for non-partisan, professional public service.
Last fall GAP and coalition partners released a letter that urged the Senate to act swiftly in enacting VA whistleblower protections. The letter can be viewed here.
Tom Devine, GAP Legal Director
202-457-0034 EXT. 124
Shanna Devine, GAP Legislative Director
202-457-0034 EXT. 132
Government Accountability Project
The Government Accountability Project is the nation’s leading whistleblower protection organization. Through litigating whistleblower cases, publicizing concerns and developing legal reforms, GAP’s mission is to protect the public interest by promoting government and corporate accountability. Founded in 1977, GAP is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.