VA Whistleblower Protection Office Retaliated Against Its Own Whistleblowers, Report Claims

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In this June 21, 2013, file photo, the seal affixed to the front of the Department of Veterans Affairs building in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
In this June 21, 2013, file photo, the seal affixed to the front of the Department of Veterans Affairs building in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

The office set up within the Department of Veterans Affairs to protect whistleblowers has itself engaged in retaliation against its own staff in policy disputes, according to a report by the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight (POGO).

The POGO report alleges that a climate of intimidation exists at the VA's Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP), which was created in 2017 at the urging of President Donald Trump to root out corruption and safeguard those who come forward to charge wrongdoing.

Citing 20 anonymous current and former staffers at OAWP, the report alleges that an OAWP supervisor, a former Army colonel, was fired for refusing orders not to cooperate with investigators from the VA's Office of Inspector General. Another staffer was demoted for the same reason, the report states.

The report also alleges that a toxic work environment exists under Dr. Tamara Bonzanto, an assistant VA secretary and head of OAWP since January 2019.

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Bonzanto, a former Navy corpsman, allegedly made demands to clear up case backlogs while failing to define procedures to carry out her orders, the report found.

"It is unacceptable that the office created to protect whistleblowers at the Department of Veterans Affairs is retaliating against whistleblowers," Liz Hempowicz, director of public policy at POGO, said in a statement on the report.

Daniel Van Schooten, author of the POGO report, said he had reached out several times to the VA for comment but received no answer.

In response to Military.com, a VA spokeswoman issued a statement defending Bonzanto but not directly commenting on the allegations in the report.

Bonzanto "has been actively working to make a number of improvements to OAWP's investigative processes, including more timely and thorough investigations and better communication with whistleblowers," according to the statement.

She also "is committed to fostering an open and positive work environment and addressing any concerns employees may have" and has "received positive feedback from many employees on various initiatives to address staff concerns," it adds.

However, a scathing report issued last October by the VA's office of Inspector General charged that OAWP is failing in its mission to protect whistleblowers and hold senior leaders accountable.

The IG's report said that OAWP has dismissed whistleblower complaints without cause and "floundered" in efforts to protect them.

The report also appeared to support charges by VA union officials that OAWP investigations focused on custodial staff and other low-level employees while giving a pass to political appointees and other senior leaders.

Only one senior VA executive has been fired since OAWP was created in 2017, the IG's report states.

"Very little has changed" at OAWP since the IG issued its report last October, Van Shooten said. "Clearly, this office is not holding senior VA officials accountable."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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