The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) joined with three other nonprofit, nonpartisan organizations to urge the Senate to withdraw a provision in the temporary spending bill that could harm Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) whistleblowers. The courageous VA whistleblowers need strong protections, and the Senate’s misguided provision—which passed into law as part of a stop-gap spending bill—does not provide the protection they deserve.
The provision creates a “Central Whistleblower Office” inside the VA that will handle all the whistleblowers in the agency. This sounds like a good thing, but those who understand how bad the situation is in the VA know that this may do far more damage than good. It is incredibly important that whistleblowers have the ability to go to an independent office to report wrongdoing, since an internal office could be pressured to act in the VA’s interest by covering up problems and silencing whistleblowers. It is for this reason that most federal employees make whistleblower disclosures to their agency’s Inspector General or the Office of Special Counsel. The Senate’s provision would force all disclosures to go through the VA’s Central Whistleblower Office.
Given the severity of the problems at the VA and what we heard from over 800 VA whistleblowers, POGO does not believe that this internal whistleblower office will be independent enough to give these whistleblowers the protections they need when they step forward. “The language buried in this bill,” POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian said, “sounds like it’s designed to protect whistleblowers—but it may well be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
“We have grave concerns and think it’s irresponsible to create a Central Whistleblower Office at the VA without proper independence,” she continued. “By housing this office within the VA, we worry it risks becoming an internal clearinghouse to help agency managers identify and retaliate against whistleblowers.”
Other organizations also expressed concern about this provision, including the Government Accountability Project (GAP), whose Legal Director, Tom Devine, called the provision a “Trojan Horse.”
“In GAP’s experience, federal agency-based whistleblower offices don't work. Consistently, they are used as a trap that identifies whistleblowers and funnels their evidence into entities with a conflict of interest that then try to cover-up the misconduct,” he explained.
Emily Gardner, Public Citizen’s Health and Safety Advocate, also agreed that the Central Whistleblower Office will likely be ineffective at protecting VA employees who “bravely disclose waste, fraud, and abuse.” She added that “a cultural shift is required inside the VA [which] must be accompanied by statutory mandates that protect whistleblowers and witnesses inside the agency.”
Even the Senior Executives Association, which represents federal managers and is often at odds with the rank-and-file, is against the provision. President Bill Valdez said whistleblower complaints should be handled by each agency’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), which has the experience and expertise to properly investigate tips. “Experienced OIG investigators and auditors have the independence, expertise, capacity, power and authority to fully and properly vet whistleblower disclosures. This formula has proven to work across government, and if there are problems with the VA OIG, Congress should work to understand and address them rather than by legislating around them,” he said.
POGO has been heavily involved in exposing problems at the VA over the past two years. POGO Policy Counsel Liz Hempowicz testified before the Senate last November, highlighting the problem of retaliation against VA whistleblowers and our concerns with the Central Whistleblower Office. POGO Investigator Lydia Dennett testified at a Senate field hearing last November about POGO’s experience hearing from so many whistleblowers from within one agency. POGO has also advocated for effective solutions. One of those solutions is the Veterans First Act, a Senate bill which is widely supported by whistleblower advocacy organizations and includes a similar, but more independent office.