The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee convened the morning of Tuesday, September 22, to conduct a hearing about the ongoing problem of whistleblower retaliation and intimidation at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
The first half of the two-part hearing featured three whistleblowers who were retaliated against by the VA as well as the brother of a whistleblower who committed suicide after being fired in retaliation for questioning the overmedication of patients. Sean Kirkpatrick told the Committee that the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) had gone so far as to accuse his brother of being a drug-dealer in a report following his death. Two of the three whistleblowers on the panel explicitly stated that they felt they could not trust the VA OIG, with one calling the office “a joke” and its investigations “shoddy.”
Instead, each of the whistleblowers found the support they needed in the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), which has achieved favorable outcomes for 116 VA whistleblowers since the beginning of 2014 and currently has 279 active VA whistleblower retaliation cases. These numbers are only growing: the OSC has reported that in the past two calendar years approximately 35 percent of all complaints submitted to the OSC have come from employees at the VA (estimated to reach as many as 1,400 in 2015). This makes the VA the largest source of complaints, outstripping even the Department of Defense, which has twice as many employees.
The second portion of the hearing featured representatives of the VA, the VA OIG, and the OSC. After reading from a white paper which exemplified the VA OIG’s culture of intimidation and retaliation against whistleblowers, Chairman Ron Johnson (R-WI) delivered a fiery condemnation of the previous VA OIG administration. He demanded to know the names of each person involved in the creation of the document—information Acting Inspector General Linda Halliday was unable to provide on the spot. She instead was only able to offer that she had not been involved in or aware of the document’s preparation.
Part of the problem at the VA OIG is that the office has been without a permanent Inspector General for over 630 days. This is a serious obstacle to legitimate reform at the VA, as Acting Inspectors General often lack the authority to make lasting changes or set long-term strategic priorities. In July, the White House promised to appoint a new Inspector General, but has provided no timeline and given no official reasons for the lengthy delay. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) went so far as to propose that if the White House did not appoint a new Inspector General within six months, Acting Inspector General Halliday would automatically take on that role.
The VA itself also has its share of problems, one of the biggest being management’s failure to effectively and consistently discipline those who retaliate against whistleblowers. In 2014 the Project On Government Oversight worked with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America to collect stories of VA misconduct and retaliation against whistleblowers. After receiving over 800 submissions from VA employees and veterans alike, POGO wrote a letter to the VA Secretary highlighting serious whistleblower retaliation issues within the agency as well as “a culture of bullying employees” and “blatant neglect.” Unfortunately, POGO is not the only organization receiving record levels of complaints—the VA OIG hotline now receives over 40,000 complaints each year. Yet when pressed at the hearing, Dr. Carolyn Clancy, Chief Medical Officer of the VA, was only able to say that while many of the retaliators were disciplined, only “one person was fired.”
Summing up the whistleblowers’ frustration with VA over the lack of substantive discipline administered to retaliators, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) stated that “if [the retaliators] aren’t fired, then their leadership should be fired.” To address this issue, Senator McCaskill has introduced a bill that would require the firing of any VA employee found to have retaliated against a whistleblower.