WASHINGTON — More than a year into a nationwide crisis in veterans health care, the government whistleblowers who exposed deadly faults in the Veterans Administration have had lots of experience in what to expect when speaking out against supervisors.
On Thursday, four of those whistleblowers addressed the annual Whistle Blower Summit in a cramped room just down the road from the congressional buildings where many have testified about malfeasance such as secret waiting lists and abusive workplaces. This time, they were telling potential whistleblowers how to tell the truth while protecting themselves from retaliation.
“A lot of the times, you’re so used to putting up with the retaliation that it just seems like part of your job,” said Dr. Katherine Mitchell, who helped expose problems at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care System that led to the national scandal.
Mitchell was joined by Dr. Lisa Nee and social workers Germaine Clarno and Shea Wilkes, all current or former VA employees who have reported wrongdoing. All four are in town in part to brief lawmakers on how reforms are going at the VA.
A lot of the advice was practical: Document everything, find out which agency to report to, strip out emotion and stick to the facts when writing an official complaint and keep your nose clean because supervisors may try to find a reason to get rid of you. Mitchell, who still works for the Phoenix VA system, has authored a 37-page guide to reporting wrongdoing.
Other tips were more emotional. Wilkes made going public with malfeasance sound like a mix between taking on the mob and preparing for a presidential run, telling potential whistleblowers to sit down with their family and discuss the potential impact before speaking out.
“You have to be prepared to put your career on the line,” he said. “Once you go, you’ve got to prepare for hell, because they’re going to come at you with all that you’ve got.”
Wilkes and Clarno also run the group VA Truth Tellers, which connects whistleblowers through a Facebook page. They say the site has gained a lot of attention from employees who have spoken out or are thinking about it.
"It's important that as a group we have a united front," Clarno said.