Holding the Government Accountable

“Terrified” of Retaliation Inside Veterans Affairs Whistleblower Office

(Illustration: CJ Ostrosky / POGO)

Leaders of a Department of Veterans Affairs office dedicated to increasing accountability and protecting whistleblowers appear to have retaliated against several employees who raised concerns about the office’s mismanagement, according to a Project On Government Oversight (POGO) investigation.

POGO spoke with nearly 20 current and former employees of the approximately 80-person office within the department responsible for caring for veterans, reviewed emails and documents, and found examples of apparent retaliation that include limiting job responsibilities, moving people to lower-level positions, and termination. Employees of the accountability office say it is beyond dysfunctional and that people are “terrified” now that efforts to reach out to Congress and communicate with higher-ups in the department have failed to keep the office’s leaders in check.

Mismanagement, threats, and acts of retaliation have sown fear in the VA’s whistleblower protection office.

The VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection’s mission is to investigate complaints of whistleblower retaliation and senior-level misconduct and poor performance within the notoriously scandal-ridden department, and then make disciplinary recommendations to the secretary. But nearly three years after the office’s creation, whistleblowers across the VA are still facing retaliation, and few senior officials have been held accountable for misconduct.

The office was established in 2017 with strong support from President Donald Trump, who claimed the reforms he was making would be one of his “crown jewels.” POGO and other accountability-focused organizations opposed the placement of the office within the department, arguing that its lack of independence from the department’s leadership would complicate its efforts to hold senior officials accountable.

Creating an internal office to address whistleblower retaliation is unusual, but the VA has a particularly rich history of abuses, many of which have been compounded by a lack of accountability for misconduct. The department has a well-documented history of firing whistleblowers after they speak up about problems, but has a dismal record when it comes to holding people accountable for poor performance or egregious misconduct.

An October 2019 report from the VA’s Office of Inspector General examined the accountability office’s first year and a half, and described how its leadership in that period “made avoidable mistakes” and how the office “floundered in its mission to protect whistleblowers.”

For example, the same 2017 law that established the accountability office also made it easier for the VA to fire senior executives and made it harder for courts to overturn those firings. However, the accountability office’s leaders interpreted the 2017 law as giving their office leeway to conduct what amounted to short and sloppy investigations. The inspector general found that those incomplete investigations likely contributed to the fact that only three VA officials were disciplined in the way the accountability office recommended. The 32 other times the office recommended disciplinary actions in its first year and a half, the VA reduced the punishments.

Red Flags, Mismanagement, and Failure

VA Assistant Secretary Tamara Bonzanto has led the accountability office since January 2019. During her tenure, the office has had a budget of tens of millions of dollars and taken in nearly 2,000 whistleblower complaints, but as of November has produced only one recommendation for disciplinary action against a VA senior executive.

Some in Congress have taken notice of the office’s continued ineffectiveness. Under Bonzanto’s leadership, the office has “failed to meet its most basic performance requirements,” House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano and Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Chairman Chris Pappas wrote in a September 2019 letter to the head of the VA.

In two congressional hearings last fall, Bonzanto blamed the current situation on her predecessors. However, POGO’s investigation reveals that Bonzanto’s tenure has not reflected even slow progress in rectifying the previous two years’ problems and has instead made things worse.

According to insiders POGO spoke with, the office has recently taken some steps forward, such as creating standard operating procedures—which the investigative division had lacked for months—and materials for the department-wide whistleblower trainings the office is supposed to conduct. Bonzanto told lawmakers in October that the office would complete these steps by the end of 2019. But some at the accountability office say that the steps were not done particularly well, as most of the work was crammed into the last week of the year.

Red flags first appeared in March 2019, as the office’s entire staff, most of whom work remotely, met Bonzanto face-to-face at a weeklong conference in Houston. Attendees told POGO that at an all-staff meeting halfway through the week, Bonzanto “viciously verbally attacked” an investigator for asking a hypothetical question about procedures for handling evidence. As the tirade continued, Bonzanto took aim at the entire office, saying it was even worse than what she had been told, according to numerous staff members who were present.

Later in the conference, Bonzanto’s deputy at the time, Todd Hunter, reprimanded employees for crossing their arms and shaking their heads while Bonzanto was talking. Hunter assigned a few people to watch the rest and take notes on who was not demonstrating “the appropriate body language,” several employees recounted to POGO.

In a session for investigators, Bonzanto stood by as Hunter brought up the inspector general’s then-ongoing review of the office and threatened investigators who might use the review as an opportunity to complain, telling them that he could “have you gone by this afternoon” if they didn’t like working there, according to several investigators and notes written shortly afterwards that were shared with POGO.

Sources told POGO that toward the end of the conference, Bonzanto and Hunter blindsided the leaders of the investigative division by demanding that they immediately assign all the backlogged cases—which numbered over 120—to the approximately 25 investigators. The newly assigned cases tripled the workload of some investigators, according to investigative staff. Follow-up questions from investigators and their leadership about how to handle the new workload went unanswered by leadership.

Prior to that announcement, the office’s leadership had, in consultation with leaders of the investigative division, reduced most investigators’ workloads to just two to three cases, with the goal of standardizing performance. (Before that, investigators’ caseloads had varied more widely between two and six cases, depending on their experience and the complexity of their cases.) This allowed supervisors to more closely oversee each case, but also resulted in a backlog, which leadership expected the office could eventually reduce by gradually increasing caseloads once the necessary processes were in place, according to former investigative division leadership.

Bonzanto’s decision to eliminate the backlog all at once undid much of the progress the investigative division had made.

Bonzanto’s decision to eliminate the backlog all at once undid much of the progress the investigative division had made, according to former investigative leadership. Suddenly, investigators were frantically trying to juggle the added work and their preexisting cases, all without standard operating procedures in place. Several investigators told POGO the quality of their work dropped significantly because of the workload increase.

In an October 2019 hearing, Representative Pappas, of the House Veterans Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, asked Bonzanto to explain the logic behind increasing investigators’ workloads before establishing standard operating procedures or implementing consistent training. In response, Bonzanto pointed to trainings investigators had completed before her arrival and several quality-control measures she had implemented.

Neither reason holds up under review.

First, the new quality control measures Bonzanto referred to weren’t implemented until August, five months after she abruptly ordered the increase in work. As for prior training, the Office of Inspector General stated in its report that the previous training was inadequate, and, during the hearing, Bonzanto herself pointed to poorly conducted investigations as the reason she hadn’t been able to issue more than one recommendation for disciplinary action against a VA employee.

The office did not respond to POGO’s request for the current number of backlogged cases, but as of Bonzanto’s October testimony, it was 572. Bonzanto said during that hearing that she planned to eliminate the backlog by the end of 2020. According to her written testimony, in order to meet that goal, her office planned to increase the number of investigative staff and contract out cases to external investigators.

Publicly available details about Bonzanto’s plan to contract out investigations are scarce. Her written testimony contains only two statements describing the plan, in which she says that contracting out cases is a “best practice.” Things are not much clearer inside the office, employees told POGO. Several said they fear Bonzanto wanted to hire contractors primarily so that she could replace those who raise concerns about her leadership.

The accountability office did not respond to emailed questions from POGO seeking additional information about the contracting plan.

As for staffing up the investigative division, Bonzanto had already done so—at least on paper. In August, she merged it with the triage division, which largely focused on intake filtering and case management. This created 10 new investigators, a statistic Bonzanto repeatedly highlighted in her testimony as a step toward solving the office’s problems.

But she didn’t mention the fact that the reorganization meant that there were now about a dozen new, inexperienced investigators being assigned cases, or the fact that their only training at that point consisted of a $300,000 boondoggle in September that attendees said “wasn’t … remotely relevant or useful.” As POGO reported, the office rushed a sole-source contract for the training, hiring a company that then hired consultants who presented outdated and at times irrelevant information, along with slides that appear to have been plagiarized from Wikipedia and the nonprofit Government Accountability Project.

“I don’t have confidence in this office,” Representative Takano concluded in the October hearing after highlighting how ill-conceived he thought the reorganization was.

Most of the new investigators feel like they are being set up to fail, several employees told POGO. It was only in mid-January 2020 that the investigative division received standardized training on how to do their jobs.

Additionally, because of the reorganization, investigators told POGO they must now spend more of their time sorting through minor workplace disputes that the less-specialized triage division previously handled. This has led to significant delays in cases being evaluated.

One investigator told POGO that serious cases that should be prioritized, and even potentially criminal cases that should be referred elsewhere, make it through the office’s now-barebones screening and onto investigators’ to-do lists alongside trivial cases, where they may wait a month before investigators can more carefully evaluate them. Prior to the reorganization, the office’s triage division more thoroughly assessed cases within 24 to 48 hours, and could refer disclosures of potentially criminal activity to the inspector general within a few hours, according to the investigator.

Threats, Intimidation, and Retaliation

It appears that Bonzanto may have also engaged in whistleblower retaliation, which may be prohibited by law and is contrary to the accountability and whistleblower protection office’s mandate.

Investigators told POGO they were not happy at the end of the March conference. On the final day, one of the investigation division’s two supervisors, a retired Army colonel, notified office leadership that he was contacting the inspector general’s office and volunteering to be interviewed during its review.

The next business day, a Monday, investigative leadership—two supervisors and their boss, the director of investigations—got on a conference call with Hunter, Bonzanto’s deputy. They told Hunter they saw intimidation efforts as inappropriate and the sudden increase in workload, without warning and apparently without sufficient forethought, as gross mismanagement. Hunter asked the investigative leaders why no investigators had come to him directly with their concerns, and they responded that investigators feared retaliation. At the end of the call, Hunter said he’d help sort out operational details the following day, a person who’d been on the call recounted to POGO.

On Tuesday, however, Bonzanto and Hunter detailed the director of investigations to a lower-level position in a different division of the office. The former director maintains that he never received any official justification for the move, individuals close to the situation told POGO.

On Friday, Hunter fired the retired colonel, who was still in his probationary first year of employment as an investigative supervisor, multiple staff members recalled.

Hunter accused the retired colonel of knowingly lying to him during the conference when he repeated incorrect information a subordinate had given him about a travel arrangement, according to individuals familiar with the matter. Those individuals told POGO the retired colonel alleges that he did not have access to the office’s travel management system and therefore could not have verified the subordinate’s claim or knowingly lied about it. The text of the termination notice the retired colonel received, which was shared with POGO, cited only “unacceptable conduct.” One former member of the investigative division told POGO that, prior to the conference, Hunter had said on several occasions that he was pleased with the retired colonel’s performance and praised the decision to hire him.

The investigations director left the office that summer. Neither Bonzanto nor Hunter responded to POGO’s emailed questions about the firing of the retired colonel and temporarily reassigning the former investigative director.

Hunter asked the other investigative supervisor to take over the director’s position, but the supervisor instead resigned the following Monday, effective immediately, current and former employees told POGO. This left the investigative division with triple the workload, no operational guidance, and two empty layers of management above them, employees told POGO.

The empty layers of management were soon filled by acting officials, but the officials came from outside the investigative division, and lacked the investigative experience to properly supervise cases. The director who had been temporarily assigned to a different division left the office that summer, as did the acting director who had replaced him. Without experienced supervisors, investigators were forced to rely on their best guesses and the advice of colleagues as they attempted to proceed in their cases.

“There’s been a complete implosion of the investigative division since [last] March,” one former employee told POGO.

There’s been a complete implosion of the investigative division since [last] March.

Former OAWP employee

The Office of Special Counsel is investigating claims of retaliation from the retired colonel and the former director, according to POGO’s sources. The Office of Special Counsel is an independent federal agency that investigates cases of whistleblower retaliation in the federal government.

Office leadership struck again in May, after an employee raised questions about why Bonzanto had ordered a roughly $2,700 sofa for her already furnished office. The purchase was promptly cancelled, but a staffer widely seen as a close friend of Bonzanto allegedly began to harass the employee who questioned the purchase, and office leadership took several key job duties from the employee and gave them to the alleged harasser, according to staff familiar with the situation.

In July, the office’s chief operating officer confronted Bonzanto’s new deputy, Hansel Cordeiro, about the alleged ongoing harassment of several of her subordinates, including the employee who had questioned the sofa purchase. Sources told POGO that rather than address the behavior, Cordeiro removed the chief operating officer from her post within a week, returning her to a prior role as an investigator. The next day, Cordeiro announced to the entire office that the staffer alleged to have engaged in the harassment would take over as acting chief operating officer.

Neither Bonzanto nor Cordeiro responded to POGO’s emailed questions about the treatment of the former chief operating officer and the employee who questioned the sofa purchase. The Office of Special Counsel is investigating at least one of those two cases of apparent retaliation, according to POGO’s sources.

Threats, intimidation, and retaliation have continued in the months since, multiple employees told POGO. “People are terrified,” one current investigator said.

If the Office of Special Counsel substantiates the retaliation allegations, the VA can either settle the cases or ignore both the whistleblowers and the Office of Special Counsel. The agency can choose to ignore them because the executive branch administrative court that hears employment disputes—to which whistleblowers and the Office of Special Counsel must go to compel agency action—has not been operational for three years, as it has lacked a quorum of Senate-confirmed members. Any appeal to the administrative court, called the Merit Systems Protection Board, will likely languish for years in a backlog of over 2,500 cases.

Whistleblowers are waiting, and empty promises won’t do.

Representative Chris Pappas (NH)

This means the authority to hold the accountability office’s leadership to account lies only with Congress, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, and Trump. Apparent inconsistencies in the information Bonzanto has provided to lawmakers may provide some additional incentives for lawmakers to pay attention.

For example, when Bonzanto testified before Congress last October, she told lawmakers that “a culture of accountability now exists in OAWP.” As evidence, she said she has “an open-door policy” for employees who have concerns. But her statement was news to the office’s employees. Her deputy had instructed staff in April not to contact Bonzanto directly. “I will, if needed, relay information I believe is warranted to Dr. Bonzanto,” he had written. According to multiple employees, office leadership hasn’t explicitly told employees that they’re welcome to contact Bonzanto directly, even after her testimony.

When asked about employee morale during the congressional hearing, Bonzanto testified that it was “neutral.” However, the results from the most recent official employee survey, which had a 99% participation rate, reveal that morale at the accountability office is very low. It is far below the VA’s average, and would qualify as the sixth-worst place to work in the entire federal government if its score was not grouped with other VA offices. In addition, sources tell POGO that as many as 30 people have left the office since April, an attrition rate of roughly 30% in less than a year.

“Whistleblowers are waiting, and empty promises won’t do,” Representative Pappas said at the October hearing.

Most employees POGO spoke with at the accountability office don’t expect anything to change. “We’re doomed,” one employee said.