On Tuesday the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held a hearing to examine VA whistleblowing and retaliation up close. The hearing record clearly established 1) the widespread use of retaliatory investigations within the VA, and 2) the need for disciplinary actions against retaliators. It also underscored the danger of a leaderless Office of Inspector General; the VA has been without a permanent Inspector General since the end of 2013.
Throughout the hearing, “VA Accountability: Examining First-Hand Accounts of Department of Veterans Affairs Whistleblowers”, Chairman Ron Johnson (R-WI) and a bipartisan group of outraged Senators express contempt with the VA for systemic measures to silence the very employees charged with caring for veterans.
Three brave VA whistleblowers, and one witness testifying on behalf of his late brother, detailed misconduct at the VA and the price they have paid for truth telling. In addition to administrative leave, termination, and blacklisting, witnesses reported a common tactic by the VA to improperly access HIPAA protected medical records in an effort to use the findings against the employee.
Brandon Coleman, an Addiction Therapist for the Phoenix VA Health Care System, Mr. disclosed that the hospital was mishandling veteran suicides. The VA’s response? A VA police lieutenant escorted Mr. Coleman out of his workplace and the VA had his disability benefits reduced. He cautioned: “VA Whistleblowers risk the total destruction of their professional reputation for simply telling the truth.”
In response to the growing number of whistleblowers, Shea Wilkes – a VA mental health social worker who reported cronyism in hiring at the Shreveport VA – formed VA Truth Tellers, a support network of more than 40 VA whistleblowers.
VA whistleblowers are also finding a friend in the Office of Special Counsel (OSC). It is currently deluged by VA cases, which comprise nearly 40 percent of OSC complaints. At the same time, “the number of employees getting relief at our agency is at an all time high” testified Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner. Under her leadership, 100 corrective actions for VA whistleblower cases have been taken, compared to 29 across the whole government five years ago.
Notwithstanding its successful track record, Special Counsel Lerner focused on the need for disciplinary action. “I personally feel responsible for making sure that when people come to us for help that we are able to help them. Even in cases where VA has substantiated wrongdoing, very little is done to hold managers accountable.”
Chairman Johnson captured the longstanding paradox, “It seems pretty easy for midlevel managers to retaliate and terminate whistleblowers, and then its enormously difficult to hold those who retaliate against whistleblowers accountable, much less terminate them … There’s nothing more corrosive to an organization.”
Throughout Tuesday’s hearing Senators, whistleblowers, the Special Counsel, and even VA officials unanimously agreed that greater accountable for VA employees who have been found to retaliate against whistleblowers is sorely needed. Section 4 of the VA Accountability Act is a first step in that direction.