Bit by bit, examples of the disreputable treatment of Department of Veterans Affairs whistleblowers continue to drop.
The Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the independent agency that protects whistleblowers, says it has secured “over 25 corrective actions for whistleblowers who have disclosed wrongdoing at the VA” since April.
But that’s just a fraction of the workers who have been the target of retaliatory action from managers after the staffers exposed problems. The OSC has about 120 pending reprisal cases involving health and safety disclosures by VA whistleblowers.
“VA whistleblower retaliation complaints related to health and safety disclosures peaked in the summer of 2014, but they still are at historically high levels,” Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said in an interview. “The number of corrective actions that OSC has obtained for VA whistleblowers also is at record highs.”
A corrective action often means VA was pushed to reverse an unjust punishment against an employee who probably should have been praised for trying to get the agency to do right in the first place.
Four recent cases outlined by the OSC demonstrate what bosses will do to get back at VA workers who disclose embarrassing information.
Rachael Hogan, a registered nurse in Syracuse, N.Y., told a supervisor about a rape allegation by a patient against a VA employee. When the supervisor delayed making a police report, Hogan complained. On another occasion, she reported a nurse who twice fell asleep while watching a suicidal patient. Another complaint concerned a manager who engaged in sexual harassment.
The supervisor who delayed the rape report and the one accused of harassment responded by retaliating against Hogan. In April, they moved to fire her because of an alleged “lack of collegiality,” according to information from the special counsel’s office.
Fortunately, Hogan could turn to the OSC for help.
The OSC reached an agreement with VA that placed Hogan in a new position with different supervisors, and VA agreed to revise her performance rating. VA also said it will fund the OSC whistleblower protection training for managers in Syracuse, including the two who tried to get Hogan fired.
Certainly, training is a good thing. But is that all that happens to the managers who unfairly tried to get her terminated? What is the punishment for bosses who unjustly punish federal whistleblowers who try to make the government work like it should?
“Those who are found to have engaged in retaliatory behavior in these instances are currently under review and disciplinary actions will be forthcoming where claims were substantiated,” said James Hutton, a VA spokesman.
Meanwhile, stories of retaliation continue.
Mark Tello, a nursing assistant in Saginaw, Mich., complained about poor staffing that could result in “serious patient care lapses,” according to the OSC. His reward: VA tried to fire Tello. He didn’t get fired, but Tello was suspended for five days in January 2014. Not satisfied, VA’s management again proposed firing him in June.
Fortunately, the OSC stepped in, and VA agreed to rescind the suspension, give Tello back pay and put him in a new position under different management.
Richard Hill, now retired, was a primary-care doctor in Martinsburg, W. VA., when the OSC said he “expressed serious concerns about the lack of clerical staff assigned to his primary care unit, which he believes led to significant errors in patient care and scheduling problems.” That was in March. In early May, the VA response was to reprimand him. Hill retired in July.
After the OSC intervened, VA agreed to “expunge Dr. Hill’s record of any negative personnel actions.”
An OSC spokesman would only say that Hill and Tello were targeted over allegations of inappropriate behavior.
Coleen Elmers, a nurse manager in Spokane, Wash., told the VA’s inspector general’s office in July that an evaluation of one of her staffers had been fraudulently altered. She had refused to make the change. In return, Elmers’s boss tried to get her fired, saying in October that she had failed to follow instructions and engaged in “inappropriate behavior for a management official,” according to the OSC. The Merit Systems Protection Board in December agreed to the special counsel’s request to block the firing while it investigates.
While these cases are among many that demonstrate how VA retaliated against whistleblowers, there is good news. VA Secretary Bob McDonald, who took office in July, has worked to make whistleblowers feel welcome, instead of rejected.
“The new secretary and the new administration at the VA have been very cooperative with OSC,” Lerner said, “in obtaining relief for whistleblowers who have meritorious reprisal cases.”
Of course, it’s better not to have the reprisals in the first place.
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.