Fifty. That's the number of times a report from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Inspector General (OIG) used the word "fail" or "failure" in its review of a VA office designed to protect agency whistleblowers.
The VA's Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP) failed at times to keep whistleblowers' identities secret and shield them from retaliation, did not adequately train staff and investigated criminal acts outside its purview, according to a sweeping report from the OIG released this month.
The VA OAWP office was created by Congress in 2017 to improve protections for whistleblowers while also holding VA employees accountable. But instead of performing that role, the OAWP had a culture that was "sometimes alientating to the very individuals it was meant to protect," according to the report.
"Instead of using the personnel authorities Congress provided the agency to root out bad managers and improve service delivery to veterans," J. David Cox, American Federation of Government Employees president an employee union which represents VA employees, said in a release reacting to the report. "The VA has systematically misused its authority to fire low-level staffers, retaliate against whistleblowers, and hurt the very veterans the agency was created to help."
Among the problems found by OIG investigators:
- OAWP staff did not take "sufficient steps" to protect complainants' identities and failed to safeguard against retaliatory investigations, the report states. In one instance, a whistleblower who filed a complaint against a senior leader was investigated and allegations were substantiated without an interview of the whistleblower.
- OAWP staff were not trained in conducting investigations, interviewing witnesses or writing reports. "One disciplinary official described OAWP investigations as 'a [disciplinary] action in search of evidence,'" according to the report.
- The OAWP rejected complaints within its scope, while investigating some outside of its scope. At one point, it had advertised a broader authority to look into complaints than it actually holds.
- Rather than refer an investigation of its then-executive Peter O'Rourke to a separate VA agency, "the OAWP retained the investigation, in part, because the [Veterans Health Administration] component 'might feel intimidated by having to interview a now-OAWP employee.' To mitigate the appearance of bias, an OAWP official assigned the matter to an investigator who did not know the OAWP leader in question 'well,'" according to the report. O'Rourke later took over acting VA secretary before moving to a senior advisory role following the Senate confirmation of current VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. O'Rourke was forced by Wilkie to resign in December after sitting on the VA payroll but doing little work, according to news reports.
OIG officials cautioned that despite leadership changes, some workers still report fear of OAWP retaliation or disciplinary action for their whistleblowing.
"The OAWP leaders and staff who are committed to improving VA programs and operations face considerable challenges in overcoming the deficiencies identified in the OIG review," the report concluded.
"VA takes issue with two aspects of the IG’s report," VA Press Secretary Christina Mandreucci said in an email. "The first is its implication that the act was designed to target senior executives for discipline. In reality, the Act included expanded disciplinary authorities that apply to all VA employees and it is 2014’s Veteran Access, Choice and Accountability Act that aimed to better hold senior leaders accountable. This is a key distinction the report misses. "VA is also concerned that the report does not address OAWP’s many improvements and reforms in the executive summary or body of the report, relegating them instead to fine-print footnotes," she continued. "Regardless, VA appreciates the IG’s review and is committed to consistent improvement, and under OAWP’s new leadership, the office will deliver just that."
House Committee on Veterans' Affairs Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., and subcommittee chairman Chris Pappas, D-N.H., said in a joint press release last week they will look into the OIG's findings during a special hearing on Tuesday.
"VA has a long way to go to ensure they can adequately investigate whistleblower claims and protect those that courageously speak up -- OAWP's most important mission," they said in the press release. "This report clearly shows that the current leadership still has not fixed, or even admitted, the ongoing failures of the office."
-- Dorothy Mills-Gregg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include the VA's response.