At VA hearing, Democrats and Republicans agree that whistleblowers should be protected

By JOE DAVIDSON | The Washington Post | Published: November 15, 2019

WASHINGTON — Until the Ukraine impeachment scandal exploded, the protection of federal whistleblowers was important to Republicans and Democrats alike.

That old bipartisan commitment was on display Thursday during a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing about a Department of Veterans Affairs internal watchdog report. The inspector general found that an office meant to protect whistleblowers instead inflicted injury.

Employee confidence in the department's willingness and ability to deal appropriately with whistleblowers has been damaged — and it could take a long time to heal.

Departing from her prepared opening statement, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., chairwoman of the veterans affairs subcommittee, said the findings by VA's inspector general "were incredibly disturbing ... The fact that this office seemed to be used as a political weapon, rather than a tool to be able to help veterans get the service they need, that they deserve, that they earned, was a travesty."

After Texas Rep. John Carter, the top Republican on the panel, read the report about VA's Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, he concluded "that pretty much the whole thing is a wreck ... that everything is broken."

One wrecked part of the office was its responsibility to keep secret whistleblowers' identity when they requested anonymity. Inspector General Michael Missal told the hearing the office "failed to fully protect whistleblowers from retaliation." Former officials in the office, he added, "took the position that allegations of whistleblower retaliation could not be investigated unless the whistleblower was willing to disclose his or her identity."

Missal's statement came one day after House Intelligence Committee Democrats rejected a Republican move to subpoena the CIA whistleblower in the Ukraine scandal. Those revelations in the whistleblower's complaint led to the impeachment inquiry examining President Donald Trump's alleged effort to use foreign policy for his personal political benefit.

Anonymity is important because many whistleblowers, fearing management reprisals, would not report government wrongdoing without it. VA has a shameful history of retaliation against whistleblowers, particularly after the scandal over the coverup of long patient wait times erupted in 2014.

A Trump executive order established the office, supposedly for whistleblowers' protection, in April 2017. Congress codified it with legislation two months later.

"We are sending a strong message," Trump said then about whistleblowers. "We will make sure that they're protected."

Instead, the office "failed to establish safeguards sufficient to protect whistleblowers from becoming the subject of retaliatory investigations," Missal testified in the Rayburn House Office Building.

Former leaders of the office didn't know what they were doing, according to the report's findings. They "made avoidable mistakes early in its development that created an office culture that was sometimes alienating to the very individuals it was meant to protect," Missal said.

He said those leadership failures "have had a chilling effect on complainants still being felt today," though he acknowledged the office's improvement under the current leadership of Assistant Secretary Tamara Bonzanto.

Among the report's disclosures, Missal said:

  • Previous leaders misconstrued the office's mandate by conducting inquiries it should not have and declining to probe matters it was required to investigate.
  • Under prior leadership, the office "did not adopt comprehensive written policies and procedures on any topic," a situation that lasted at least until July.
  • The office "failed to provide the staffing and training necessary to ensure it has the expertise, experience, and commitment" needed.
  • VA leaders fell short on a commitment to "timely, thorough, and unbiased investigations." Many issues took a year or more to close. VA employees and others must be assured "investigations are conducted with the highest ethical standards, which does not yet appear to have been achieved."
  • An office program whose stated purpose was to help whistleblowers reestablish themselves within the department "was being used inappropriately to target whistleblowers."
  • Former officials directed 15 percent of the office's fiscal 2018 budget to contracts "for purposes unrelated to OAWP's [Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection] core mission." After Bonzanto took over, she told inspectors, "Everything that they were doing, none of it was related to OAWP."

Missal indicated that his team has a good working relationship with the office under Bonzanto and that it has developed action plans for the report's recommendations. Yet, he said, some "planned actions lacked sufficient clarity or specific steps."

Bonzanto, who also testified at the hearing, didn't sugarcoat the problems. After taking office in January, she found numerous issues consistent with the inspector general's report, "including staff who were making decisions on my behalf with little to no oversight" and employees who conducted investigations without proper training.

Her office "lacked its own culture of accountability for its first two years of operations," she said. VA whistleblowers who lost their jobs or were retaliated against in other ways relied on the office to thoroughly investigate their allegations. Yet the report found only 15 percent of the cases were referred to the office's investigation division, a situation Wasserman Schultz found "completely unacceptable."

Bonzanto said she is working to improve the office by tracking investigations and mandating that staffers keep whistleblowers informed about the status of their cases. She has increased the number of investigators by a third, and the office is developing customized training for them.

"I understand and share the sense of urgency to improve OAWP operations," Bonzanto told committee members. "I also recognize the substantial impact that the deficiencies in OAWP have had on whistleblowers and VA employees who disclose wrongdoing."

Columnist Joe Davidson covers federal government issues in the Federal Insider, formerly the Federal Diary.

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