Jacqueline Garrick is the founder of Whistleblowers of America.
When the White House set up the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, the hope was that the office would assist whistleblowers in exposing fraud and corruption. It was supposed to ensure key protections were in place for whistleblowers exposing wrongdoing and prevent retaliation against them.
Instead, it did the exact opposite. Last week, the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a damning report, noting that the VA failed to implement the 2017 Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act by exposing employees to retaliation and veterans to corruption and substandard care.
The report documented the office's misrepresentations of its scope, statutory failures, biased investigations, lack of leadership accountability, failure to protect whistleblowers, and that it was unsuccessful in meeting other training and administrative requirements. Simply, it hurt more than it helped.
I believe that the investigation did not go far enough in documenting the extent of damages suffered by employees because of the office's failures and VA leadership's stigmatization.
I talk to VA whistleblowers every day who want to protect their veterans and improve the facility they serve. In June and July 2019, I testified before the House Veterans Affairs Committee on the VA's mishandling of whistleblower complaints and the harm done when wrongdoing prevails.
The institutional bias identified by the Inspector General Report against ethical employees who hold themselves and their organizations accountable, is alarming. The report noted, "Subsequent OAWP Executive Director Nicholas told OIG investigators that, from his perspective, some VA employees treat the whistleblower title as "a position description for them. They've joined Whistleblowers of America."
His remarks demonstrate not only his own bias, but the institutional stigmatization that VA employees face when they act upon their ethics and their responsibility to care for the veterans.
The VA, like every other federal agency, requires an oath of office; mandatorily educates its employees on professional ethics; and provides Federal Acquisition Regulation training that is meant to reduce conflicts of interest, impartiality, nepotism, and the rules related to fraud, waste and abuse. The VA teaches standards of care to avoid medical errors and wrongful deaths.
Yet, if these same dutiful and well-trained employees uncover waste, fraud or abuse, they face an uphill battle, career assassination, and the loss of their professional reputations if they disclose.
The VA should insist that its employees monitor for wrongdoing every day and be lauded when engaging in quality assurance and continuous process improvement, instead of being castigated as adversaries and defamed.
Furthermore, it speaks volumes that Mr. Nicholas' characterization of whistleblowers is that, "They can't seem to let it go."
Perhaps they can't let it go because they are trying to live up to the very values federal training instilled in them. Perhaps they can't let it go because they know that the lives of disabled veterans on the line are real and precious.
Perhaps they can't let it go because the experience of a whistleblower is comparable to other trauma survivors and symptomatic of posttraumatic stress disorder. Workplace-induced traumatic stress manifests in ruminations, hypervigilance, intrusive thoughts, nightmares, flashbacks and the guilt and shame associated with it; these are the exact behaviors Mr. Nicholas describes among victimized employees.
Our society has learned to not tell combat veterans to "Get over it" or advise grieving widows that "It's time to move on." Instead, we see these fixations as needing empathy and support. Therefore, whistleblowers should be treated like other trauma survivors and their victimization recognized instead of penalized and deprecated -- because of the moral injury and identity disruption they suffered when they tried to do the right thing.
Whistleblowers are subjected to the toxic tactics of retaliation, harassment and discrimination. They have endured a hostile work environment through gaslighting, mobbing, marginalizing, shunning, devaluing, double binding, blackballing, accusing and physical/emotional violence.
Instead of getting help from VA leaders, whistleblowers have only suffered more. It's time for Congress to investigate this sham of an office, instill new leadership, and make it clear that obfuscating the light will not be tolerated.
We should applaud employees who expose fraud, corruption, waste, and bribery -- not hound them from their jobs and destroy their careers.
Far too many have paid a terrible price for speaking truth to power. Let's not make them keep paying.
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