Following the many recent scandals associated with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the Project on Government Oversight is thrilled to see the federal government recognize the importance of those who report and attempt to correct misconduct. This week, the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) presented its Public Servant of the Year Award to three whistleblower physicians employed by the VA. The full awards ceremony can be viewed here.
Carolyn Lerner, Special Counsel, opened the ceremony by expressing admiration for whistleblowers, including the three who were honored, Dr. Charles Sherwood and Dr. Phyllis Hollenbeck of Jackson, Mississippi, and Dr. Katherine Mitchell of Phoenix, Arizona. After explaining the mission of the OSC—“we listen to and protect government employees who report deficiencies in their workplace”—Lerner gave a glowing tribute to those her office serves. “Whistleblowers are patriots,” she stated. “As citizens, we all depend on the bravery and character of these conscientious public servants.” Lerner’s comments reflect the improvements that have occurred at the OSC under her watch, contrasting the corruption that took place under former Special Counsel Scott Bloch.
Representative Jeff Miller (R-FL), Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, spoke as well, lauding the value of whistleblowers and declaring his Committee’s duty to protect them: “We will continue to move forward, to press the VA, to continue changing the culture. We will focus on accountability and transparency.” Sloan Gibson, Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs followed Miller with a similarly optimistic sentiment. After describing a series of specific transformations the Department is undergoing, Gibson declared, “The last thing we can permit is an environment where an employee is afraid to raise their hand. We want the exact opposite: an environment where employees are encouraged to raise their hand.” (POGO wrote to Gibson in July regarding our investigation into the VA and providing recommendations on how best to ensure the protection and support of whistleblowers; we have yet to hear back.)
In accepting their awards, all three physicians expressed humility and gratitude, and their dedication to their work and to veterans was palpable.
Dr. Sherwood, who reported improper practices in the Jackson VA medical center’s radiology department, was honored to receive this award, yet he was also “sad that being here was even necessary.” Nevertheless, he continued, “I look forward to seeing the VA rehabilitate.” He concluded by thanking the OSC, stating, “Your work with the three of us was about saving real people.” Dr. Hollenbeck, who brought forward chronic understaffing and problems with the supervision of nurse practitioners, among other issues, also in Jackson, described the ethical conundrum she faced. “I knew I had to speak up or give up,” she said. The answer was clear, however, and she had an obligation to fight for the veterans she served. Dr. Mitchell, who disclosed critical understaffing, inadequate triage training, and other problems in the Phoenix VA medical center, echoed her peers in thanking the OSC. On a more somber note, she added, “I look forward to the day when VA whistleblowing is obsolete.”
POGO also yearns for a day when there is no need for whistleblowers, both in the VA and throughout the government. Meanwhile, however, we are pleased to hear the VA’s promises to reform its treatment of whistleblowers, and support the steps OSC has taken to improve whistleblower protection. As always, we applaud those who do the right thing and report corruption, and we offer a hearty congratulation to the three recipients of OSC’s 2014 Public Servant of the Year Award.