Lawmakers Slam VA Whistleblower Protection Office's Progress

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House Veterans' Affairs Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., speaks about veteran suicide prevention, Monday April 29, 2019, at the House Triangle on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
House Veterans' Affairs Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., speaks about veteran suicide prevention, Monday April 29, 2019, at the House Triangle on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

House lawmakers expressed frustration after hearing how the Department of Veterans Affairs is addressing failures to protect whistleblowers' identities and poor staff training, which were revealed in an Office of Inspector General (OIG) report released this month.

Members of the House Veterans Affairs subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations questioned Dr. Tamara Bonzanto, assistant secretary of the VA's Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP), and Michael Missal from the OIG about the report's scathing findings. Bonzanto joined OAWP in January.

"I am just -- this is incredulous to me," said Rep. Mark Takano, D-California, chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee. "To be frank, Dr. Bonzanto, I don't have confidence in this office. If I am approached by a whistleblower from my office, I can't in good conscience direct them to work with the office. And that's not going to change until I actually see some progress."

The OIG report published last week found the OAWP did not adequately protect whistleblowers from retaliation, hired staff with no investigative background, and investigated cases outside its purview, including one involving its own director regarding a past VA position.

Related: Scathing IG Report Details VA's Whistleblower Protection Office Failures

Congress created the OAWP office two years ago to improve protections for whistleblowers while also holding VA employees accountable. But OIG staff said avoidable mistakes by VA leadership created a "culture that was sometimes alientating to the very individuals it was meant to protect."

Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Chris Pappas, D-New Hampshire, doubted the VA's assurances that the new leadership has fixed failures listed in the report.

"This is a misreading of the IG's report," he said. "Clearly, the early leaders of the OAWP made major missteps. However -- and this must be clearly stated -- the IG also describes how major failures continue to this day."

He pointed out that the report made 22 recommendations that have yet to be resolved to the OIG's satisfaction.

Bonzanto said she's created a new system to better track investigations, reduced the size of investigative teams and is pushing her staff to understand the value of whistleblowers.

"They understand the view of the whistleblowers," she said. "They understand that when you don't pay attention, lives are impacted, and they must listen to the whistleblower and get both sides of the story when they conduct an investigation."

Bonzanto said she is having staff update whistleblowers every 14 days on their cases, which currently take about 215 days to be resolved. She plans to eliminate the 700-case backlog by the end of the year.

But Missal said vacancies in Bonzanto's new organizational structure will take time to fill and impact things like standard operating procedures, which will affect whistleblower trust.

"So, until these positions are filled, it's going to be very hard to make progress on a number of other avenues that they need to improve," he said.

Pappas said OAWP is in "just the beginning steps" and representatives will continue to insist on more progress.

"Unfortunately, I think that these hearings made clear that OAWP isn't providing critical protections and on top of retaliation," Pappas concluded the hearing. "We often hear from whistleblowers about frustration that they feel when working with OAWP, and I feel a sense of solidarity because I feel similar frustrations today."

-- Dorothy Mills-Gregg can be reached at dorothy.mills-gregg@monster.com.

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