David Tharp, a Department of Veterans Affairs psychologist, says he was so distraught by retaliation he suffered as an agency whistleblower that he went to war for relief.
After his complaints about research deception and other corruption at a VA facility in Waco, Tex., “the pressure of hostilities was so intense, my wife and I decided my only options were to quit the VA or deploy to a war zone,” said Tharp, who also is a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserve. “At least in Kandahar, Afghanistan, I knew who my enemy was. At the VA, I come back and it’s been a minefield ever since — and continues.”
Tharp, whose work has been honored by the Air Force Association and the Disabled American Veterans, was deployed to Afghanistan from October 2010 to May 2011. He began his whistleblowing activities in 2009.
Tharp’s story is another in a long list from VA whistleblowers who suffered management reprisals after exposing agency problems.
“Incredibly, even as the department has reached legal settlements with whistleblowers who endured retaliation, those who retaliated against them have gone unpunished,” said a statement from the office of Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
He wants to change that with legislation that could set a precedent for the rest of government. If his proposal becomes law, it could be a breakthrough in providing protections for whistleblowers.
But it also could backfire.
The Veterans Affairs Retaliation Prevention Act provides penalties for supervisors who take revenge against whistleblowers. Retaliators would be suspended for at least 14 days for the first offense and fired for the second.
It also would give preference to transfer requests from whistleblowers. One important provision would require supervisors to notify whistleblowers about the specific actions taken to address their complaints. This should help stop some of the coverups.
A coalition of good-government groups praised Miller for proving “a major breakthrough in the struggle [of] VA whistleblowers to have credible rights when defending the integrity of the agency mission.”
VA doesn’t think so.
The department appreciates the committee’s efforts, but “we believe the specific whistleblower disclosure and protection procedures provided by this bill would be unworkable,” a VA statement said. The legislation also would duplicate other long-standing “remedies and programs specifically created to address claims of improper retaliation in the workplace. . . . We believe these current whistleblower protections are effective, and VA is working closely with OSC [Office of Special Counsel] to ensure the Department and its employees are gaining the maximum benefits from its remedies and protections.”
But Christian Head, a VA surgeon and whistleblower in Los Angeles, said VA’s central office in Washington “really doesn’t want the power to do this because it places the responsibility on them.”
VA officials would not discuss Head and Tharp. Tharp is optimistic about the legislation, saying “this bill would have changed my life.”
That wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing, however.
Advocates worry that a provision of the bill could be turned on whistleblowers. This bill, like a law aimed at VA Senior Executive Service members that passed last year, slashes due process rights for those accused of wrongdoing. It allows them one week to appeal termination or a disciplinary transfer. This severely stunted process could be used against those it is designed to protect. Advocates say that retribution sometimes takes the form of accusing whistleblowers of retaliating against others.
“That provision can be a two-edge sword,” said Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project, which signed the good-government groups’ letter to Miller. “We’re nervous that sacrificing due process could deprive whistleblowers of an opportunity to defend themselves against Machiavellian charges.”
But Devine also says there “needs to be something dramatic to send a message . . . there needs to be severe consequences” for retaliating against whistleblowers.
“It’s a work in progress,” he said.
The bill has been approved at the subcommittee level and will be considered by the full committee.
Another point that needs work is the provision that gives supervisors just two business days to notify whistleblowers in writing of “whether the supervisor determines that there is a reasonable likelihood that the complaint discloses a violation of any law, rule, or regulation, or gross mismanagement, gross waste of funds, abuse of authority, or substantial and specific danger to public health and safety.”
Who can determine that in two days?
Devine said the notification should indicate that the complaint has been received.
As written now, Head said, the provision could be used by even well-meaning managers to deny complaints simply because they didn’t have time to investigate the allegations.
Head told Congress this month that his office was moved from the chief of staff’s suite to a former storage room after his testimony to Congress last year. He said no one was punished for that action.
Overall, he said, the bill is a good first step because “until they [VA officials] show a willingness to punish one individual, people are going to feel they can move with impunity.
“I’m profoundly disappointed in the behavior of the leadership of Veterans Affairs, because I think we’re a better institution than this,” he added, frustration clear in his voice. “All the fabulous things we have done — we’re squandering that goodwill on people who don’t deserve it.”
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.