The breakfast banquet applauding federal whistleblowers was a small but meaningful demonstration of the gratitude that regularly should be shown to employees who are too often castigated instead of celebrated for disclosing wrongdoing.
About 150 people gathered over scrambled eggs, chicken-apple sausage and roasted tomatoes in the Dolley Madison room of the Loews Madison Hotel last week as the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) named three Department of Veterans Affairs physicians “Public Servant of the Year.”
It was an upbeat event that praised protectors of the government’s mission, with little mention of the bad actors who tried to sabotage the doctors who did their duty. Positive reinforcement encouraging whistleblowers should be practiced at every agency. But to stop reprisals against them, negative reinforcement — meaning disciplinary action — also should be taken against those who retaliate against whistleblowers.
Katherine Mitchell of Phoenix and Phyllis Hollenbeck and Charles Sherwood, both of Jackson, Miss., were honored at the ceremony.
“Keep on blowing those whistles,” said House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.). His relentless probe into VA featured employees describing how the agency too often failed its patients. Whistleblowers also described how they had been punished by VA for exposing the problems before they found a receptive audience on Capitol Hill and with the OSC.
Although the Obama administration and Congress have made the government a more welcoming place for whistleblowers, the terrain remains treacherous for those who dare to take on management. President Obama has taken executive action, Congress has passed legislation, and the OSC, which protects whistleblower rights, is a strong force under Carolyn Lerner’s leadership.
Despite those increased protections, whistleblowers still are targets of retaliation, reprisal and retribution from their bosses. Increasingly, those who engage in retribution are being disciplined, although the numbers remain low. The Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2012 increased the OSC’s ability to prosecute retaliators, yet Lerner said it can be difficult to prove charges against them. She applauded the current VA leadership for trying to move the agency away from a culture of retaliation.
The OSC and the committee “did need to protect me,” Hollenbeck told the gathering, “because I like to politely call what I’m on . . . the feces roster of those in charge in Jackson.”
While acknowledging the support of some colleagues during an interview, she added: “As soon as you start to speak up internally, even before you become a whistleblower, you face a lot of reprisals from the get-go.”
The OSC cited her for speaking against a “range of wrongdoing,” including nurse practitioners who “wrote narcotic prescriptions on behalf of physicians who had never seen the patients.”
One form of retaliation was the return of a veteran to Hollenbeck’s patient list after he had threatened her.
“That’s outrageous,” she said.
Ask Mitchell about reprisals against her and she’ll tell you there were so many it is hard to keep track. But she did, and provided a list with 10 numbered paragraphs. Was anyone ever disciplined for that retribution?
“The physician chain of command and the HR chain of command that retaliated against me remain intact and, as far as I know, have never been held accountable,” she said. “The senior official in the nursing chain of command retired and therefore will never be held accountable.”
She protested a number of problems, including poor triage training and scheduling irregularities with potentially fatal consequences.
Sherwood, who disclosed that patient radiology images were not properly read or not read at all, said he escaped retaliation because he made his disclosures after he retired.
But more than a decade ago, before he retired, Sherwood recalled saying in a staff meeting that the Jackson VA hospital’s chief of staff should step down because of a conflict of interest. After that, he said, colleagues were afraid to be seen with him. Sherwood decided to get an attorney.
Knowing he had an attorney — and a good one — made his supervisors “very reluctant to take any overt acts against me,” Sherwood said.
Without that lawyer, does he think he would have been retaliated against?
“Absolutely,” he said, adding that for VA managers, “this technique of intimidation, of fear, was just another management tool.”
Federal employees should not feel they need the protection of a lawyer when making what amounts to constructive agency criticism.
VA’s new leadership promises that is no longer the case in the department.
An agency spokeswoman would not comment on any action involving those who retaliated against the whistleblowing honorees, but offered this statement: “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.”
During the ceremony, Sloan Gibson, VA’s deputy secretary, said he was “reminded of President Obama’s recent comment that ‘if you blow the whistle on higher-ups because you’ve identified a legitimate problem, you shouldn’t be punished. You should be protected.’
“Personally, I would add that you should be praised.”
Good words. But praise alone isn’t enough.
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.