Inspectors general are like cops on the beat.
IG offices include law enforcement officers among others who patrol their agencies — something like neighborhoods — hunting waste, fraud and abuse.
But what happens if IGs, watchdogs who operate independently of agency management, are dismissive of those who report wrongdoing?
That’s the upshot of a report to President Obama last week about the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) inspector general’s office. The document is from the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), a small watchdog in its own right, but one with a big bite.
Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner’s language was sharp and damning. She said the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) created a “straw man” and discredited whistleblowers in two separate cases involving the department’s scandal over the use and coverup of phony wait lists.
As was the case in facilities around the country, Lerner reported whistleblower allegations about VA management procedures in Chicago and Shreveport, La. “created a false appearance of acceptable wait times while masking significant delays in veterans’ access to care.” The resulting scandal rocked the VA, trashed its image and led to the resignation of the former secretary.
Because the IG narrowly focused its probe into allegations from employees, Lerner said the investigation “failed to address the whistleblowers’ legitimate concerns about access to care for mental health patients.”
Furthermore, “the focus and tone of the IG’s investigations appear to be intended to discredit the whistleblowers by focusing on the word ‘secret,’ rather than reviewing the access to care issues identified by the whistleblowers,” she told the president.
OIG determined the use of alternative spreadsheet wait lists was not secret. But by not going much beyond that, Lerner said the inspector general missed the thrust of the complaints and in the process diminished the complainants.
A statement from the inspector general’s office said it “did not discredit the individuals who made the complaints. The administrative summaries report the facts gathered during the investigation from interviews and records reviewed. In some cases, the evidence did not support the complaints.”
Lerner contends OIG did not do its job. She was blunt.
“I have determined that the VA’s reports do not meet the statutory requirements and the findings do not appear reasonable,” she said.
Lerner also knocked VA’s management for saying the IG reports “thoroughly” and “fully” addressed the whistleblower complaints.
A statement from VA management said it received full copies of the IG reports, unlike Lerner who was provided summaries. The full reports do “adequately address the OSC … concerns as to patient wait times,” the VA statement said.
Given VA’s reputation, both with management and the OIG, members of Congress don’t give the department the benefit of the doubt.
Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D), who represents a suburban Chicago district, expressed her “serious consternation” to the IG’s office for denying Lerner the full reports. “Your actions constitute a trend indicating significant transparency deficiencies in the VA OIG’s policies and practices,” she wrote in a letter to Deputy Inspector General Linda Halliday.
The whistleblowers are Christopher Shea Wilkes, a social worker at Overton Brooks VA Medical Center in Shreveport, and Germaine Clarno, a social worker at the Hines VA Hospital in Chicago, where she is president of the American Federation of Government Employees local. In July they sent a letter to President Obama urging him to fire the former acting VA inspector general, Richard Griffin. Days later, he resigned.
Lerner presents a picture of shoddy reports from an investigative office that did not dig deeply into complaints from whistleblowers, who felt their allegations were minimized.
Regarding Shreveport, Lerner said the inspector general concluded there were “2,700 veterans who needed to be assigned a mental health provider. However, the OIG report offers no findings or conclusions regarding whether the shortage of providers caused a delay in access to care, endangering public health and safety, nor does it outline any planned corrective actions to address this outstanding concern.”
Regarding Chicago, Lerner said “the content and tenor of the report OIG prepared demonstrate hostility toward Ms. Clarno, apparently for having spoken publicly, as well as an attempt to minimize her allegations.”
Wilkes and Clarno said they paid a price for their outspokenness on behalf of veterans. Wilkes said he was given little work and put in an office that basically was a storeroom with no windows.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) called Wilkes and Clarno “champions for standing up to the intimidation of the VA.” Lerner’s letter, he said, “shows another example of the VA culture – attack whistleblowers.”