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New Study: VA Whistleblowers More Likely to Receive Disciplinary Action

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  • Posted on: Aug 22 2018

Earlier this month, a new report by the federal government’s auditing division raised concerns regarding how the Department of Veteran Affairs handles employees and managers found to be involved in apparent acts of retaliation.

Alarming Findings

The report shares some very serious findings. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) report, VA whistleblowers are much more likely to face discipline or removal after reporting misconduct than are their colleagues, and that senior VA managers are at times not held responsible for substantiated misconduct. Other times, managers who have been accused of wrongdoing investigate themselves. Other surprising findings include:

  • VA officials who are found guilty of misconduct at times received a lesser punishment than recommended or at other times, no punishment at all.
  • A disheartening 66% of VA employees who filed formal complaints did not work for the VA the following year.
  • Whistleblowers were 10 times more likely than their peers to receive disciplinary action within the first year of reporting the misconduct.
  • The VA does not always maintain the required files and documents necessary for adjudication, lending itself to the possibility that employees may not have even had due process.

The findings are extremely alarming, drilling into the unfortunate fact that often times when individuals have spoken up about mismanagement, they are quickly silenced in one way or another. Even more shocking is the fact that sometimes the same managers who they are blowing the whistle to investigate them.

Failure to Uphold Accountability

Not too surprising given the rest of the report is that senior VA officials who were found guilty of misconduct –whether it be fraud, abuse, retaliation, or gross mismanagement – were merely given reprimands, counseling, or brief suspensions. Furthermore, the report claims that the VA “did not consistently ensure that allegations of misconduct involving senior officials were reviewed according to investigative standards.

Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M. finds the GAO report to be “alarming and beyond disturbing. Speaking to NPR, Grisham discussed the issue with the GAO’s system itself, explaining that it “has failed to protect whistleblowers and hold senior VA officials accountable for misconduct, jeopardizing veteran health and well-being. It means that there is a system that cannot police itself and doesn’t appear to be interested in really focusing on improving access and quality of care, a system that won’t address its own problems.”

Along with Colorado Republican Rep. Mike Coffman, who called the report “troubling to say the least,” Grisham requested the GAO investigation.  Also speaking to NPR, Coffman shared his own feelings about the VA’s “bureaucratic incompetence and corruption.” “The fact that the second-largest federal agency is unable to collect reliable information regarding employee misconduct, adhere to procedures when adjudicating claims, and have multiple [12 to be exact] siloed information systems is disturbing.”

Blame Placed on Obama-era Administration

VA Press Secretary, Curt Cashour, begs to differ, explaining that things are very different now than they were during the Obama-era. However, he claims that under President Trump the VA has revamped its accountability arm, which today is “ensuring adequate investigation and correction of wrongdoing throughout the VA, and protecting employees who lawfully disclose wrongdoing from retaliation.” However, the GAO’s report is not based solely on Obama-era data, but rather from 12 information systems operated from October 2009 through July 2017. Though the number of VA workers fired has actually increased under the Trump administration, the data shows that the majority was low-level food service, laundry and custodial staff.

A Step in the Right Direction?

The GAO now offers 16 detailed recommendations, which include that the secretary issues clear, written guidance on accountability actions for all substantiated misconduct cases and overhaul record-retention procedures. The VA has agreed with 9 of the recommendations, and partially agreed with five of them.

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