Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) is concerned that the subpoena from the inspector general of the Department of Veterans Affairs to the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight (POGO) could prevent whistleblowers from calling attention to the deficiencies of the troubled agency. “[T]he OIG’S actions may deter whistleblowers from coming forward to disclose important infomation that the public needs to know about how the VA is operating,” writes Coburn, the ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Coburn’s letter is directed at a May 30 subpoena from the VA’s inspector general seeking a broad range of information from the Project on Government Oversight, a group that for more than three decades has been investigating government agencies for waste and fraud. That action by the IG came just a couple of weeks after Project on Government Oversight and another group launched the Web site VAOversight.org to solicit tips from VA employees on the organization’s missteps.
The IG’s office was asking for pretty much everything:
All records that POGO has received from current or former employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs, and other individuals or entities relating in any way to wait-times, access to care, and/or patient scheduling issues at the Phoenix, Arizona VA Healthcare System and any other VA medical facility.
Project on Government Oversight called the subpoena a “fishing expedition” and insisted that compliance would violate its First Amendment rights and deter folks from coming forward with their whistleblowing information. It vows to fight the matter.
Judging from the tone of his letter, Coburn appears to be a Project on Government Oversight ally: “As the office on the frontlines of trying to fix these problems at the VA, I’m sure you would agree that the VA needs more whistleblowers to come forward to assist in learning what happened. Unfortunately, the timing of this subpoena may have a negative impact on these voices coming forward. Voices that the public needs to hear from,” reads Coburn’s letter to acting IG Richard J. Griffin.
In an instance of governmental meta-oversight, Coburn poses seven accountability questions to the VA watchdog, including an inquiry as to “what individual” approved the subpoena, as well as others about the IG’s history of subpoena issuance.
To buttress his argument on behalf of whistleblowers, Coburn cites the example of Dr. Sam Foote, who worked in the Phoenix VA system and brought complaints against a colleague and later reported feeling “harassed.” “Retaliation is unfortunately common when individuals try to expose problems,” writes Coburn.