Holding the Government Accountable

Veterans Affairs Response to Alleged Whistleblowers Still Worrying

(Photo: Jason Kuffer / Flickr)

Yesterday, the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) issued a stay in the case of an alleged whistleblower, Brian Hawkins. Late last month, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) removed the former director of the Washington, D.C. VA Medical Center for allegedly “failing to exercise effective oversight, follow instructions, follow policy, and for lack of candor.”

However, Hawkins asserts that the firing was instead in retaliation for his disclosures to the VA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) and the Central Office Acting Procurement Officer. According to MSPB’s order, Hawkins initiated an administrative investigation to look into identified deficiencies within the VA Medical Center’s Logistics Department. Mr. Hawkins then informed the agency’s OIG of his concerns .

The Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the office charged with protecting federal employees from prohibited personnel practices, found “reasonable grounds to believe that the personnel action was taken, or is to be taken, as a result of a prohibited personnel practice” and successfully petitioned the MSPB to intervene in the removal while OSC conducts a full investigation.

In response to the MSPB’s stay, the VA put out a troubling press release titled “MSPB forces VA to take back fired official, VA exploring all options under new accountability authorities.”

These “new accountability authorities” referred to in the press release were included in the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act signed into law in July by the President. POGO supported necessary provisions of the bill, while pointing out language that could be used to retaliate against whistleblowers and innocent employees. POGO has been watching with caution as the law is implemented, and while we applaud the hiring of former VA whistleblower Brandon Coleman to the VA’s new Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, we remain concerned that the VA may use language meant to protect whistleblowers to instead retaliate against them.

The VA returned Hawkins to the payroll, but to an administrative position at the VA headquarters in Washington rather than to a patient-care position at the VA Medical Center.

“No judge who has never run a hospital and never cared for our nation’s veterans will force me to put an employee back in a position,” VA Secretary Dr. David J. Shulkin defiantly announced.

Hawkins’ case will provide a litmus test for the new accountability office and how the VA interprets its authority and mission under the new legislation. POGO will continue to follow this case.