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Investigation

“Protect the Secretary”: VA Chief Robert Wilkie Installs Political Aide at Watchdog Investigating His Inner Circle

(Illustration: Renzo Velez / POGO)

A number of top political appointees in the inner circle of Secretary Robert Wilkie at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) are under investigation for misconduct by the agency’s Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP) or have allegations pending against them, according to a complaint filed in early December by a career VA employee whose name is being withheld for fear of retaliation.

The whistleblower complaint offers no detail on the allegations against the top officials, although the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection’s mandate is to examine charges of misconduct, retaliation, and poor performance by senior staff throughout the sprawling VA system, including at headquarters.

The complaint, in the form of a lengthy memorandum, is the work of a whistleblower who wrote down recent statements made by Tamara Bonzanto, President Donald Trump’s appointee as assistant secretary in charge of the watchdog office. It has been shared with Congress and filed with the VA’s Office of Inspector General and the Office of Special Counsel, an agency that protects whistleblowers and investigates misconduct in hiring for career government positions. Congressional sources familiar with the complaint highlighted excerpts to the Project On Government Oversight (POGO).

Wilkie installed one of the political appointees under investigation, Daniel Sitterly, at the watchdog office.

On December 1, Wilkie installed one of the political appointees under investigation, Daniel Sitterly—who until then headed the VA’s human resources division—as Bonzanto’s second-in-command at the watchdog office. Wilkie did so, the complaint says, without consulting Bonzanto and, when she was informed, over her objections, in part because she had already conducted a search for candidates and chosen one to fill the job.

The watchdog’s investigations of senior VA officials remained ongoing as of this week and may not find any wrongdoing.

But Wilkie’s placement of Sitterly in a leadership job in the office that is investigating Sitterly himself and others close to the secretary raises questions about the watchdog‘s quasi-independent status as it carries out its statutory mission to probe senior officials and protect whistleblowers, supposedly without meddling from top political leaders.

The complaint alleges that Wilkie is trying to hand effective control of the whistleblower protection office to Sitterly, and quotes Wilkie saying, “that Mr. Sitterly is coming to OAWP to be ‘his voice.’”

The whistleblower complaint also cites an exchange Bonzanto says she had with the VA’s number-two executive, acting Deputy Secretary Pamela Powers, over the role of whistleblowers in the watchdog office. According to the complaint, Bonzanto told Powers that employees have a right to raise concerns, to which Powers replied, “Yes, but we also have to protect the Secretary,” also telling her, we “have a lot of problematic employees in OAWP.”

(VA spokesperson Christina Noel offered POGO no comment on the preceding two paragraphs prior to publication, despite being provided the specific language of the reported quotes. After publication, Noel emailed her denial that Wilkie said Sitterly would be "his voice" at OAWP. Noel also emailed POGO a comment from Acting Deputy Secretary Pam Powers stating that “I absolutely never said that” regarding the reported quote, "but we also have to protect the Secretary...").

One source told POGO that Powers has declared internally that the decision to install Sitterly came several weeks prior to its announcement on December 1, and was reached in coordination with the White House Presidential Personnel Office.

Another knowledgeable official described Sitterly as a “model public servant” who volunteered to help turn around the watchdog office, which has been widely viewed as dysfunctional.

He is in the position of exercising substantial influence over investigations of his former office and colleagues and beyond.

Senators Jon Tester (D-MT) and Brian Schatz (D-HI)

Whatever the case, Sitterly’s new appointment has provoked sharp questions from two leading Democrats, including the ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. Sitterly “is in the position of exercising substantial influence over investigations of his former office and colleagues and beyond,” Senators Jon Tester (D-MT) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) wrote.

And the whistleblower complaint itself, citing Bonzanto, accuses Wilkie and his top aides of actions that “run contrary to the law and represent an abuse of authority.”

In response to POGO's detailed query, VA spokesperson Christina Noel told POGO in an email that “the allegations you cite lack context and are false to the point where sharing them with your readers would be irresponsible.” She did not elaborate.

These new revelations come as a wide array of veterans groups call for Wilkie’s resignation in the wake of an inspector general report examining his purported attempts to dig up dirt on a congressional staffer (who is also a veteran) who said she was sexually assaulted at a VA hospital.

Noel gave POGO a recent statement by Secretary Wilkie on the scandal: “After nearly a year of investigation, interviews with 65 people and analysis of nearly 1.5 million documents, VA's inspector general cannot substantiate that I sought to investigate or asked others to investigate the Veteran. That’s because these allegations are false.”

Crossing the Line

POGO was also told of allegations that when Sitterly was chief of VA human resources, he sought to learn more about confidential pending investigations into senior VA officials and others, and to ascertain the names of non-public whistleblowers who might have made charges against them.

Congressional and VA sources also spoke of allegations that in a number of meetings earlier in 2020 Sitterly asked Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection staff repeatedly about specific cases, whether employees he identified by name had made whistleblower disclosures, and whether any whistleblower disclosures implicated senior VA officials. OAWP leaders would reportedly reply that such information could not made available for privacy and confidentiality reasons, yet his requests persisted.

Noel, the VA spokesperson, did not address the specifics of allegations concerning Sitterly. She said, however, that “Daniel Sitterly is a career government senior executive with decades of leadership experience and he has precisely the right mix of skills and temperament to help OAWP improve.” Sitterly himself acknowledged receipt of POGO’s emailed questions, but provided no substantive response.

Sitterly may have been aware of the investigations involving top officials in the secretary’s inner circle and elsewhere because he reportedly has access to information on which VA staff are under official scrutiny. POGO was told that such access is granted in part so that human resources officials can avoid promoting or conferring awards on staff who may have engaged in wrongdoing. However, access to this information, maintained in computer files, does not include details of the cases or the names of whistleblowers.

At the same time, an active investigation also does not necessarily bar a promotion or an award, especially if it is about a minor issue unlikely to have merit and if there is a pressing need to fill a vacancy, for example at a VA medical center, a federal official not authorized to speak to the press told POGO.

The Sitterly affair brings into stark relief a key shortcoming involving the watchdog office: its lack of independence from the VA’s political leadership under current law.

This desire to strike a balance has sometimes led VA management to seek more details about ongoing cases at the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, in part due to its often-lengthy investigations even in “small potato cases,” the official said. Protracted investigations have impeded numerous personnel decisions even when no misconduct is found, the official said. 

But in the eyes of some OAWP leaders, Sitterly crossed the line by seeking information that could compromise the integrity of investigations and the identities of whistleblowers, POGO has learned. 

Aside from lengthy investigations, both Bonzanto and her Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection have faced other criticism, including from its own employees, as the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee and POGO have previously found

That said, the Sitterly affair brings into stark relief what oversight and whistleblower protection experts have called a key shortcoming involving the watchdog office: its lack of independence from the VA’s political leadership under current law.

Minding the “Kids”

The dispute came to a head at a December 1 meeting attended by Wilkie’s acting chief of staff Brooks Tucker, Sitterly, and Bonzanto and two of her aides, with Powers, the acting deputy secretary, participating remotely by telephone. It was then that Powers reportedly cited the involvement of the White House’s Presidential Personnel Office in the decision to transfer Sitterly into his new role. This involvement was not necessarily inappropriate, given that Sitterly was a presidential appointee.

January 20, 2021, marks the last day on the job for most of Trump’s political appointees, at which point Sitterly, in his new, nonpartisan civil service job, could be allowed to keep working. He would then effectively replace the departing Bonzanto as boss of the office that is investigating him and others around Wilkie. At some point after that, the Biden White House would nominate Bonzanto’s official successor, who would then need to be confirmed by the Senate.

There were questions about why Wilkie had installed Sitterly in the job without consulting Bonzanto, overriding the competitive hiring process.

The whistleblower complaint, citing Bonzanto, says that almost as soon as the December 1 meeting began, arguments broke out. Bonzanto and one of her aides questioned Sitterly’s qualifications to serve as her deputy. There were other questions about why Wilkie had installed Sitterly in the job without consulting Bonzanto, overriding the competitive hiring process.

Acting chief of staff Tucker told the group that during a presidential transition, things can “get political,” and that Sitterly would help “continue what this administration did into the next one.”

The complaint, citing Bonzanto, quotes Sitterly saying that “a frustration is that OAWP does not share information about cases that it investigates” with senior agency management, and that he was “going to improve the information we share about those cases with them.”

At one point during the meeting, according to the complaint, Tucker derisively referred to Bonzanto and apparently others in the room as “kids,” saying, “Tammy, the Secretary made that decision [to impose Sitterly as her deputy] and you were not part of it.” The complaint says Bonzanto replied that she is a Senate-confirmed presidential-appointee, not a “kid.” According to the complaint, Tucker shot back, “We need to keep our egos out of this, and do what is best for the Secretary.”

At another point, Sitterly stood up and threatened to quit, saying, “I don’t want to work with a bunch of children.” He allegedly charged that “OAWP is broken” and said he would not allow a “subordinate to question him.”

Soon after, an apparently enraged Sitterly stalked out of the room.

Almost immediately after the acrimonious session, Tucker sent an email within the VA announcing Sitterly’s appointment as deputy at OAWP, noting that, “Having successfully carried out the duties in that political position, Sitterly will resume his career path at VA at OAWP as a senior, non-political official.”

Burrowing?

In key respects, Wilkie’s move to install Sitterly allegedly as his “voice” in a civil service post at OAWP appears to be what is known as “burrowing.” The controversial practice of agencies converting political appointees to career employees is only legal through adherence to a rigorous set of rules.

But Sitterly is also a former career member of the federal government’s senior executive service, prior to his political appointment at the VA in early 2019. So unlike many other political appointees, Sitterly has “reinstatement eligibility” inside the career civil service.

And Office of Personnel Management (OPM) guidance provides a potential loophole stating that “OPM will not conduct a pre-hiring review” of political appointees who are “non-competitively” selected for a career position “at the same or lower grade than previously held.”

Sitterly “did not convert (or relinquish) his career status when serving as a presidential appointee, so there was no need to seek [the Office of Personnel Management]’s approval to reinstate him as a career SES [senior executive service] in VA to the deputy assistant secretary position within OAWP,” a VA spokesperson told Federal News Radio.

While Sitterly’s return to the ranks of the career workforce appears to have been allowed under the rules, the circumstances raise questions about the motivation behind the move, most notably why Bonzanto’s pick resulting from a rigorous hiring process was shunted aside in favor of Wilkie’s non-competitive choice.

“Floundered in Its Mission”

The creation of the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection was a marquee reform touted with much fanfare by the Trump White House in 2017. It was meant to signal a new chapter at the VA after a wave of whistleblower complaints poured out of the department beginning in 2014, especially after employees at the VA medical center in Phoenix raised concerns about long waits for treatment, denial of care, and other problems that harmed veterans. But the office has struggled and provoked controversy.

Within a year of its launch, lawmakers questioned whether the whistleblower protection office and a related law were undermining VA employees who raised concerns.

“I want to make it clear that while this law made it easier to discipline poor employees, it did not give VA the license to use this authority to target employees, no matter their position or grade, or to retaliate against whistleblowers,” said Representative Phil Roe (R-TN) in 2018 when he was the chair of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

Official reports have largely supported the office’s dismal reputation. A scathing October 2019 VA Office of Inspector General report found that “in its first two years of operation, the OAWP acted in ways that were inconsistent with its statutory authority while it simultaneously floundered in its mission to protect whistleblowers.”

Bonzanto inherited the flawed office in early 2019 and since then has been a target of criticism as well. In October 2019, Representative Mark Takano (D-CA), chair of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, told her that “If I’m approached by a whistleblower from my district, I cannot in good conscience direct them to work with your office.”

Representative Andy Biggs (R-AZ) also asked questions last year about OAWP insiders, citing “concerns of wrongdoing at OAWP, as well as allegations of further whistleblower retaliation against them and other OAWP employees for raising issues of concern plaguing OAWP.”

Recent events appear to show that Bonzanto may be less under the thumb of VA leadership than Wilkie and his inner circle would prefer. “She is definitely not part of the Wilkie team,” a source at the VA told POGO.

With Sitterly’s appointment, Wilkie and the White House have installed someone more in tune with the VA’s current political leaders, and who will remain in place after they relinquish power toward the end of January. It’s a reflection of the fact that the office’s independence from the secretary was never guaranteed in law and, now, Wilkie appears to be asserting control over the watchdog.

As the Trump administration counts down its final weeks, the power struggle involving OAWP and Trump’s top political appointees at the VA looks as if it will reverberate well into President-elect Joe Biden’s term in office.

“We are deeply troubled by previously announced and ongoing efforts to rush potentially harmful policies through the Department in the last days of the Trump Administration while at the same time attempting to embed politically connected individuals into career positions within VA,” Tester and Schatz wrote earlier this month.