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POGO Ignores Deadline to Report VA Whistleblowers

Phoenix VA Hospital
Phoenix VA Hospital

A government watchdog allowed a deadline to pass on Friday imposed by the Department of Veterans Affairs to hand over documents and emails from whistleblowers reporting potential wrongdoing at veterans hospitals and medical centers.

The Project on Government Oversight, or POGO, said they are awaiting a response from VA leaders. POGO officials asked why the VA Office of the Inspector General has not demanded that other media outlets turn over documents and contact information from its sources with possible knowledge of manipulated patient wait times and delayed patient care.

"What about The New York Times and The Washington Post? They have put out calls for whistleblowers, too," POGO spokesman Joe Newman. "I don't see [the VA] issuing subpoenas to them."

The VA's IG office had demanded POGO turn over its documents and contact information by Friday, June 13, but the group refused.

"The deadline passed ... We didn't talk to them, didn't have any communication with them. As of today there's been no word, so we're waiting," Newman said.

The IG's office did not respond to Military.com's request for comment.

POGO launched its VAOversight.org whistleblower site last month in partnership with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).

The VA's IG is currently investigating allegations of manipulated wait times at the VA Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona, and at more than 70 other hospitals and clinics nationwide. Acting IG Richard J. Griffin told lawmakers last week that his office is coordinating with the Justice Department so that anyone found to have engaged in criminal conduct may be prosecuted.

Griffin wrote to Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., on Friday explaining that the subpoena for POGO's records is part of his information gathering "from third party sources ... for the sole purpose of ensuring we have all the information available to complete a thorough, and comprehensive review and investigation."

POGO, in a written reply to the documents demand, told the VA that the department already had the tools it needed to conduct its own investigation.

As of Friday, POGO had heard from about 700 potential whistleblowers, but estimated they would likely only follow up on about 150 contacts – these former or current VA employees.

Griffin, in his letter to Coburn, said the VA's whistleblower hotline has gotten complaints from more than 10,500 people since the wait times issue first broke in April. Additionally, the VA is getting complaints and contacts passed on to it daily by congressmen who have set up their own hotlines. Griffin said the lawmakers are sending VA the information without redacting the identity of the complainants.

Given the VA's resources, Newman said he is not surprised at the number of calls the OIG is getting and the number of contacts.

"We're not unhappy that people are calling them directly, but for people who don't have confidence in the IG, we're another outlet," he said. Newman said some people are concerned their identities will not be protected by the government.

Griffin, in its letter to Coburn, said U.S. law "specifically prohibits the disclosure of the identities of employees and others who disclose information to the OIG ... We take this responsibility seriously."

But Newman said Griffin did not spell out the law in its entirety.

The same legal provision that bars disclosure ends with the phrase, "unless the Inspector General determines such disclosure is unavoidable during the course of the investigation."

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@monster.com

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