Veterans Affairs Department whistleblowers on Tuesday questioned the competence of the inspector general's office, whose work they characterized as "shoddy."
They also called on Congress to better fund the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which is tasked with protecting federal employees from prohibited personnel practices.
Four witnesses -- three VA employees and one the brother of a VA psychologist who committed suicide after being fired for complaining of patient overmedication at a hospital -- told members of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee that the inspector general's office had shown itself to be incapable of revealing serious department problems. Shea Wilkes, whose complaints of cronyism and corruption at the VA Medical Center in Shreveport, Louisiana, nearly cost him his job, went so far as to call the OIG's work "half-assed and shoddy."
"The IG works with the VA to whitewash problems and hide them," he said. "The VA IG is a joke."
Wilkes and others said the Office of Special Counsel provided the protections and investigation that the IG did not.
"If not for [the OSC] I would have been terminated," said Joseph Colon, who works in credentialing program support with the VA Caribbean Healthcare System in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He was disciplined and threatened with being fired after complaining to hospital officials about patient care. He also let higher ups in Washington, D.C., know that the facility's director was arrested for drug possession and drunk driving.
Brandon Coleman, an addiction specialist with the VA Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona -- ground zero in the scandal involving manipulated patient wait times -- agreed but said the OSC is "overwhelmed" and in need of more manpower.
Carolyn Lerner, Special Counsel for the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, told lawmakers that her office has helped dozens of VA whistleblowers restore their careers.
"The number of victories for whistleblowers is increasing steadily," she said. "OSC recently settled a retaliation complaint filed by Joseph Colon [and is] actively reviewing the retaliation complaints and whistleblower disclosures filed by Brandon Coleman and Shea Wilkes."
OSC receives about $25 million annually and currently has 140 employees, according to Lerner. Last year, the agency received more than 3,200 complaints, she said.
"If you tell a federal employee that he will be protected if he comes forward … we ought to be able to back that up," she said. "I personally feel responsible for making sure when people come to us to help them that we're able to help."
Also testifying Tuesday was Sean Kirkpatrick of Chicago, whose brother, Dr. Chris Kirkpatrick, committed suicide after being fired from his job as a psychologist at the VA Medical Center in Tomah, Wisconsin, where he came under fire by officials after complaining about overmedication of patients.
Dr. Carolyn Clancy, chief medical officer for the VA's Veterans Health Administration, said the department would like to see the OSC receive more funding.
"If we are successful in encouraging whistleblowers to step forward we will have many more [do so] and that is a good thing," she said. "Others will feel it is okay to step forward."
Anticipating a rise in complaints from whistleblowers is why VA favors more funding for the Office of Special Counsel, she said.
Assistant Inspector General Linda Halliday, now the acting head of the OIG, conceded the OSC's good work. She said the IG's office has done its best to protect whistleblowers and is now completing OSC certification "so that all OIGs can assist whistleblowers."
She said the IG's office is also short-staffed and underfunded, with just 1 percent of the VA's budget.
"There is a serious discrepancy between the size of our staff and the workload," she said. The IG's office has about 660 people responsible for criminal investigations, audits and financial and contract reviews for an agency with about 354,000 employees.
"I want VA employees to have trust in the OIG," she said. "I know they come to us for help and they deserve nothing less."
Senators from both sides of the political aisle challenged the Obama administration to name a permanent inspector general and fill the job that has been vacant for nearly two years.
Halliday has been in the job only since July, after Richard Griffin, who had been the acting IG, resigned amid whistleblowers' criticism he had done little or nothing to expose fraud and abuse at the department. Griffin had been the acting IG since January 2014.
"It's time to think about having a clock," Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, said, "and if the administration has not appointed an inspector general after six months, at an agency that has 35 percent of whistleblower complaints in all of the federal government, then Miss Halliday gets the job. She becomes the IG because the administration has failed to act."
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire, agreed that the White House needs a push, calling it "absurd that it has been 631 days since there was a permanent inspector general at the VA."
"If the President really about getting this right, he'll nominate a permanent inspector general. It says a lot that people on both sides of the aisle have asked him to do it," Ayotte said.
--Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.