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POGO Report Uncovers Apparent Retaliation at VA Accountability Office

Leaders at the Department of Veteran Affairs’ accountability and whistleblower protection office appear to have retaliated against several employees within the office who spoke up with concerns, an investigation by POGO found.
(Illustration: CJ Ostrosky / POGO)

(WASHINGTON)—Leaders at the Department of Veteran Affairs’ accountability and whistleblower protection office appear to have retaliated against several employees within the office who spoke up with concerns, an investigation by the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) found.

In speaking with nearly 20 current and former staffers from the approximately 80-person VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, POGO discovered that staffers are “terrified” as they watch the way leaders in the office react to those who raise concerns. The office is tasked with investigating whistleblower retaliation and other misconduct in senior leadership and making disciplinary recommendations based on their findings.

While the head of the office, Assistant Secretary Tamara Bonzanto, was in the room during a March 2019 all-staff conference, her deputy allegedly threatened staffers, telling them not to complain to the inspector general’s office, which was conducting a review of the accountability office at the time. One supervisory staff member told Bonzanto’s deputy that he would speak with the inspector general’s office, and then was fired days later. Separately, when another supervisor complained to Bonzanto’s deputy about the intimidation of staffers at the conference and an increase in workload, he was reassigned to a lower position. Both claims of retaliation are under investigation by the Office of Special Counsel.

POGO’s investigation expands on previous whistleblower accounts of a toxic work environment, with new allegations of retaliation by Bonzanto and her deputies. POGO’s reporting also indicates that Bonzanto, who has led the office since January 2019, has failed to improve the office’s overall work product—the office has been under scrutiny for some time and was the subject of an October 2019 inspector general report. Bonzanto significantly increased investigators’ workloads without providing sufficient training, and added employees to the investigative team who had no prior investigative experience, according to POGO’s interviews with employees. The office has only recommended disciplinary action against one VA senior executive during Bonzanto’s tenure.

“It is unacceptable that the office created to protect whistleblowers at the Department of Veterans Affairs is retaliating against whistleblowers,” said Liz Hempowicz, director of public policy at the Project on Government Oversight. “We know, from the hundreds of employees, patients, and contractors who came to POGO in years past to raise concerns about the longstanding toxic culture of retaliation at the VA, that the agency will never be able to accomplish its mission if whistleblowers can’t come forward to call attention to internal waste or illegality.”

Media Contacts: Daniel Van Schooten, Investigator at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), [email protected]or (202) 347-1122; or Caitlin MacNeal, Media Relations Manager at POGO, [email protected]or (202) 347-1122

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Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that investigates and exposes waste, corruption, abuse of power, and when the government fails to serve the public or silences those who report wrongdoing. 

We champion reforms to achieve a more effective, ethical, and accountable federal government that safeguards constitutional principles.