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Interim Director in Charge of Arizona VA Put Whistleblower on Leave

POGO Letter to Acting VA Secretary Details “Toxic” Culture of Retaliation Across VA

When the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) needed an interim director for its troubled Southwest Health Care Network—which has been rocked with accounts of falsified records and whistleblower retaliation at the Phoenix VA—it turned to Elizabeth Joyce Freeman, director of the Palo Alto VA.

However, a Project On Government Oversight (POGO) investigation has found that when Freeman was in charge of the Palo Alto VA system she took administrative action against a whistleblower, Inpatient Pharmacy Technician Supervisor Stuart Kallio, who had complained to her that inpatients were suffering from “unconscionable errors and delays” in the delivery of needed medications.

The actions against Kallio and the expansion of Freeman’s responsibilities appear directly at odds with a message the acting secretary sent to VA employees on June 13 saying he would not tolerate intimidation or retaliation against whistleblowers.

In a letter dated April 7, one of Kallio’s superiors threatened him with suspension and accused him of “Inappropriate Conduct”—specifically, sending emails “that contained disrespectful and inappropriate statements” about Freeman and others at the Palo Alto VA. The listed emails, which were provided to POGO, criticized management and expressed Kallio’s concerns about medication delivery and other issues at the hospital. In a letter dated May 29, he was told that he was being suspended for two weeks “based upon several disrespectful correspondence [sic] you initiated with management.” Then, on June 20, Freeman wrote to him placing him on administrative leave pending an investigation. That same day, the chief of the Palo Alto pharmacy service issued a written order directing Kallio not to speak out about “this matter.” In February Freeman received a bonus of $12,579 for the 2013 fiscal year.

Kallio’s case, along with other instances of alleged retaliation against internal VA whistleblowers, was detailed in a letter POGO sent today to Acting Secretary of the VA Sloan Gibson.

POGO, working with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), launched on May 15 as a safe channel for VA whistleblowers to report corruption, waste and mismanagement. Since the website launched, almost 800 people have contacted POGO, many of them painting a picture of an agency crippled by a culture of fear and intimidation.

In its 33-year history, POGO has never received as many submissions on a single issue. The comments POGO received go far beyond long and falsified wait times for medical appointments; they extend to the quality of health care services veterans receive.

POGO’s letter to Acting Secretary Gibson sets forth recommendations to “demonstrate an agency-wide commitment to changing this culture of fear, bullying, and retaliation.”

“POGO has never witnessed such a toxic culture of retaliation across an entire agency. Acting Secretary Gibson should meet with whistleblowers immediately and put meaning behind his promises of change. In addition, Congress must act to pass pending reforms. Proposed legislation would hold VA wrongdoers accountable; however, such reforms should make clear that the definition of ‘wrongdoing’ includes retaliating against whistleblowers and veterans who complain about care. Until we eliminate the culture of intimidation and climate of fear, no reforms will be able to turn this broken agency around,” said POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian.

"The hostile and corrupt culture uncovered by this POGO investigation confirms what IAVA has been pointing out for years: the VA system is severely broken and must be overhauled from top to bottom,” said IAVA CEO and Founder Paul Rieckhoff. “These allegations of cover-ups and retaliation against whistle blowers should draw universal condemnation. Our vets deserve better. While IAVA intends to work with our leaders in Washington to enact reforms, we also intend to hold them accountable if the VA's new leadership fails to get these problems under control. Vets are suffering and in some cases dying because of the VA's failings. We intend to continue to push for the truth and for reforms so that all of our nation's vets are treated with the respect and care they earned.”

To read the letter, go here.