Fight between two watchdogs in VA drama could affect federal whistleblowers

Joe Davidson
Columnist June 15

A legal tussle between two organizations watchdogging the Department of Veterans Affairs is not the main story line in VA’s current drama, but this subplot could have ramifications well beyond the agency.

Central to this story is the role of federal employee whistleblowers.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

The truth about the manipulation of VA patient waiting lists is being revealed because of them. And more and more, there are stories from employees who fear retaliation if they report department problems.

That fear is at the heart of a dispute between the watchdogs, one inside the agency, the other outside.

The nonprofit Project on Government Oversight (POGO) has rejected a subpoena from VA’s Office of Inspector General (IG). The IG demanded “all records that POGO has received from current or former employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs . . . relating in any way to wait-times, access to care, and/or patient scheduling issues.”

A POGO Web site, VAOversight.org, operated with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, encourages VA employees to “expose corruption.” More than 750 people have contacted the site since it was launched May 15, according to POGO, but far fewer, perhaps 25 percent, are current or former employees with knowledge of manipulated lists or other whistleblower information. The homepage says: “POGO will work to protect your identity while trying to expose and remedy the problems you have identified. This allows the whistleblower to expose wrongdoing while lowering the risk of jeopardizing their career.”

Turning over records to the IG, however honorable that office’s intentions, would render POGO’s promise hollow.

In a letter to the inspector general’s office, POGO said it is covered by constitutional protections for journalists. Providing the records, the letter added, “would cause irreparable damage to POGO’s fundamental mission of uncovering systemic problems in federal agency administration, as future whistleblowers would rightfully be suspicious that POGO might jeopardize their confidentiality and subject them to retaliation by government officials.”

To POGO’s surprise, an important ally has come to its assistance.

Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), the top Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, essentially told acting IG Richard J. Griffin to back off. In a letter to Griffin on Thursday, Coburn said that the IG’s “actions may deter whistleblowers from coming forward to disclose important information that the public needs to know about how the VA is operating.”

That gets to the crux of why POGO, like journalists, refuses to disclose sources. And that’s why this subplot could have real meaning beyond VA.

If Griffin — certainly one of the good guys in the larger drama — wins, POGO and others could lose the confidence of whistleblowers. Too many employees of VA and other agencies already are afraid to report wrongdoing. If POGO is forced to give up information, that could drive whistleblowers to silence.

In a letter sent to Coburn on Friday, Griffin said that “the sole reason” for the subpoena was to “ensure that the Office of Inspector General had all the information available to conduct a thorough and complete investigation of these issues and hold individuals accountable when appropriate.”

Separately, acting VA secretary Sloan D. Gibson tried to alleviate fear of retaliation with a message to all employees Friday. “I want to make clear that intimidation or retaliation against whistleblowers — or any employee who raises a hand to identify a legitimate problem, make a suggestion, or report what may be a violation of law, policy, or our core values — is absolutely unacceptable,” he said. “I will not tolerate it.”

That statement is important, but for its message to be real it must seep throughout the bureaucracy.

“People had a fear of retaliation if they said there is not enough staffing” to deal with long waiting lines, said J.David Cox Sr., a former VA nurse and president of the American Federation of Government Employees. AFGE represents about two-thirds of VA’s staff.

POGO, according to Griffin, offered to disclose the types of cases it had but not the source of that information. But Griffin said that his office needs identities to determine whether it has already received complaints from those individuals “and if not, to pursue relevant information they may have.”

Griffin’s letter also indicated the scale of his office’s “massive investigation,” saying: “To date we have conducted hundreds of interviews, obtained and are reviewing more than a million e-mails, reviewing hundreds of medical and other records, and reviewing thousands of complaints received through our Hotline, including many from members of Congress.”

The IG and POGO both want to get the whole truth about the VA scandal. They should be able to do that before this squabble gets nasty and without forcing POGO to reveal its sources.

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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