Holding the Government Accountable

POGO Letter to VA Secretary Prompts Congressional Action

Arizona’s delegation to the House of Representatives is calling for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to investigate the allegation that the newly appointed interim director of the VA’s Southwest Health Care Network based in Arizona retaliated against a whistleblower in California.

Last week, the Project On Government Oversight reported that Elizabeth Joyce Freeman, then-director of the Palo Alto VA Health Care System, took administrative action against Stuart Kallio, an inpatient pharmacy technician supervisor.

Kallio had reported concerns about pharmacy operations up the chain of command to then-director Freeman. He alleged veterans had been suffering from “unconscionable errors and delays” in the delivery of medications. Kallio accused Freeman of unlawfully retaliating against him. She subsequently placed him on administrative leave.

As first reported by The Arizona Republic, the Representatives from Arizona—five Democrats and four Republicans—wrote a letter on July 25 to Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson seeking “a thorough and impartial investigation into these allegations.”

Citing POGO’s letter, the lawmakers wrote: “If the allegations are substantiated, we urge you to take appropriate action to hold responsible individuals accountable, and to appoint leadership who will be part of the solution to the VA’s whistleblower retaliation and health care delivery problems.”

POGO found a culture of fear and retaliation at the VA that discouraged employees from trying to raise concerns or fix problems. Kallio experienced this kind of culture first hand. A VA manager accused him of “Inappropriate Conduct” and he was ultimately suspended for two weeks for sending allegedly disrespectful correspondence. He was also ordered by the chief of the Palo Alto pharmacy service not to speak out about “this matter,” POGO reported last week.

The actions against Kallio and the expansion of Freeman’s responsibilities appear directly at odds with a message Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson sent to VA employees on June 13 saying he would not tolerate intimidation or retaliation against “any employee who raises a hand to identify a legitimate problem, make a suggestion, or report what may be a violation of law, policy, or our core values.”

Freeman did not comment for POGO’s report last week, but, in an interview with POGO on July 29, she stated, “I welcome any investigation. I welcome any suggestions for improvement on how I can provide the kind of environment that all of those thousands of people work in support of veterans find it’s the kind of environment where they can raise their hand, they can make suggestions, and those suggestions will be acted upon to improve the health, welfare, and the well-being of our veterans that we serve.”

Freeman generally declined to answer questions about Kallio, citing employee privacy, but she did say that his case may need to be re-evaluated due to a new investigative process established in the past few months. “I will say that we followed our procedures and did a thorough investigation,” she said. “It may need to be re-investigated due to the initiation of these new procedures.”

A spokesman for Representative Matt Salmon (R-AZ) said those responsible for retaliation at the VA should be held accountable. “It’s abhorrent that individuals attempting to bring light and scrutiny to circumstances inside a VA administration that has and continues to fail our veterans are punished for their efforts to protect our vets,” said spokesman Tristan Daedalus. “At the administrative level, these veterans need support and compassion, now more than ever. If someone is standing in the way of those goals and seeking to shirk oversight and keep further revelations of the mishandling of claims quiet, they should not be directing any segment of this agency.”

POGO has received allegations of VA wrongdoing from around 800 people located in 35 states and the District of Columbia.