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New VA secretary inherits an oversight office that's seen as dysfunctional

The VA's Assistant Secretary for Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Tamara Bonzanto prepares to testify at the start of a Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs hearing on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES

By LISA REIN | The Washington Post | Published: February 17, 2021

As he led the security team that protects senior officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Anthony Everett reported what he viewed as an ethical breach and misuse of taxpayer money by two top Trump political appointees.

He reached out to an office created by President Donald Trump to root out waste and corruption in VA's top ranks. His disclosure in October was supposed to be kept confidential. But three hours after he pressed the send button on his computer, Everett, a disabled Army veteran, was ordered demoted by one of the officials he had complained about, losing half of his responsibilities. He was given no reason.

Everett's case, described by six current and former VA officials, is but one in a long list of alleged reprisals against employees who reported misconduct to the troubled Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP). Its disarray, one of the challenges confronting newly confirmed Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough, represents an unkept promise by a president who proclaimed he would drain the swamp of corruption — especially at the long-troubled bureaucracy of close to 400,000 employees that cares for veterans.

To many in the department, the veterans community and both parties in Congress, the unusual program created to stop corruption has only carried out more of it.

Trump appointees cycled in and out of leadership roles, hiring unqualified friends and producing substandard inquiries of senior leaders' misconduct, VA's inspector general found. Two of three directors in four years had no investigative background. Instead of acknowledgment, whistleblowers faced reprisal.

With more than 3,400 complaints logged since 2017, an annual budget of $23 million and a staff of 100, the office recommended discipline against just 32 of thousands of senior leaders through mid-January, a number that struck some lawmakers as disappointingly low. It's unclear how many managers were actually disciplined.

"The bottom line is that OAWP passively has shielded accountability at an agency that desperately needs it," said Tom Devine, legal director of the nonprofit Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower-protection group. He called the record of discipline recommendations "indefensible."

"We've arrived here today with very little to show for it," said Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H., who leads an oversight panel on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee that has scrutinized the office. He blamed the failures on VA political leaders: "We never had leadership at the top who appreciated the core mission it was tasked with."

The official who ordered Everett's demotion, former acting deputy secretary Pamela Powers, said in an interview that she did not act in response to his complaint but declined to give an explanation for the timing.

This account is based on interviews with 15 current and former VA officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly.

Terrence Hayes, the current VA spokesman, declined to comment, saying it would be inappropriate to weigh in publicly on the previous leadership. McDonough said at his confirmation hearing in January that he would fight to improve veterans' access to care, a goal widely viewed as out of reach unless senior officials are held accountable.

Former spokeswoman Christina Noel wrote in an email that in the final two years of the Trump administration, the accountability office "filled the vast majority of its key leadership positions and hired qualified investigative supervisors to ensure a robust investigative and oversight capacity." She wrote that it "has taken several steps to ensure that whistleblower identity is protected."

Asked why so few senior leaders were disciplined, Noel said that was largely out of the office's control because it was set up to recommend discipline, but not to impose it.

"I thought I was starting a job that was going to do good things for veterans," said Mike Booher, a retired Army veteran hired last year as a human resources supervisor. The accountability office "should have been an example for the entire VA," he said, "but it set the opposite example." Booher quit after three months.

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Everett, 53, a former criminal investigator in the Army who later led security details for four high-ranking Pentagon leaders, was a division chief at VA's law enforcement training center in Arkansas when he was recruited to Washington in 2018. The agency wanted him to clean up the executive protection division, which was troubled by overtime and travel abuses documented by the inspector general.

Two years into his tenure, though, Everett grew alarmed when Powers, who had recently become acting deputy secretary of the department, wanted to fly first-class on a trip with Karen Pence, the vice president's wife, according to Everett's complaint, portions of which were reviewed by The Washington Post and confirmed by two VA law enforcement officials. The flight ended up being canceled.

The complaint also said Powers demanded a larger permanent security detail than a threat assessment justified, with four agents and two vehicles.

Everett turned down both requests because guidelines did not warrant them, the complaint and officials said. But he was overruled by another political appointee, Daniel Sitterly, then chief of human resources.

With Powers traveling little and making few public appearances during the pandemic, several agents on her security detail were idle for long periods, the officials said. One agent assigned to the detail was an out-of-town VA police officer whose monthly lodging, meals and other expenses cost taxpayers more than $9,000.

Seeing no reason for what he regarded as an excessive use of taxpayer money, Everett turned to the accountability office, filing complaints against Powers and Sitterly.

Within three hours, Everett's boss, the agency's chief security officer, informed him in an email that the executive protection division was being reorganized "effective immediately." Everett was no longer division chief and would not oversee Powers's security detail. He kept his full salary.

Powers said in an interview that she had Everett removed from her detail because she questioned his competence. "I didn't feel comfortable around him," Powers said, adding that she had "no idea" Everett had filed a complaint about her conduct. Everett declined to comment.

Powers denied requesting a higher level of protection and said she "used less security than is authorized." She also denied ever proposing to fly first-class while at VA.

The Post confirmed the existence of documents Everett provided to investigators with details of the flight and expanded security detail.

Everett received ratings of "outstanding" — the highest in government — in each of the past three years, according to performance appraisals reviewed by The Post.

Outgoing VA Secretary Robert Wilkie gave him a commendation in January for "outstanding contributions" during the pandemic. In his most recent review, Everett's supervisor wrote, "Mr. Everett has done an exceptional job ensuring the protection of the VA Secretary and Deputy Secretary" during the pandemic.

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The accountability division, separate from the inspector general's office, was established by the Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017, approved by a bipartisan vote in Congress. VA was given new authority to speed up dismissals and discipline against high-ranking officials.

At the time, the agency was struggling to regain its footing after an Obama-era scandal over wait times for medical appointments.

"We are sending a strong message: Those who fail our veterans will be held, for the first time, accountable," Trump said at the bill signing.

The office was not structured to be fully independent, an issue that drew criticism from whistleblower advocates. Its director is a political appointee who reports to the secretary. Agency attorneys, whose role is to defend managers, review recommendations to discipline them.

Many of the first hires, including those at senior levels, had no investigative background. Almost immediately, complaints of favoritism, mismanagement and retaliation against whistleblowers began pouring into lawmakers' inboxes and the inspector general's office, which opened an investigation.

Inspector General Michael Missal reported in late 2019 that "misdeeds and missteps" by the office's first two leaders had nearly crippled its operations.

Investigators found skimpy training of investigators, a misunderstanding of the mission, a failure to discipline senior leaders, inferior work that failed to withstand legal scrutiny and other failures that left the office "floundering" in its duty to protect employees who reported wrongdoing.

By the time the report was completed, the accountability office was on its third director, a former House investigator who became its first Senate-confirmed leader.

When Tamara Bonzanto arrived in early 2019, the staff had received no formal training. The operation lacked basic standard operating procedures. Some investigators were handling just two cases as a backlog of almost 600 complaints mounted.

Bonzanto promised to improve the culture, increase training, bring oversight to investigations, hire new staff and set up training for VA employees in whistleblower rights. Her tenure cleared up many issues — but led to new ones.

Whistleblowers and others who raised concerns about the management of the office said they faced swift reprisals.

Brandon Coleman, who in 2014 disclosed lapses in care for suicidal veterans in Phoenix, said he was reassigned in July 2019 and found himself with no meaningful work for 18 months after Bonzanto eliminated his fledgling program to mentor former whistleblowers.

In complaints to Congress, he called the office a "dumpster fire." In an interview, he said Bonzanto did not respond to his repeated efforts to meet with her.

"I watched paint dry on my walls," Coleman said, estimating his hours of productive work in 2020 at about 100.

Another staffer, a retired Army colonel hired as a supervisory investigator in 2018, lasted eight months before his firing, which came within days of telling his bosses he was speaking with the inspector general's office about what he called a "toxic stew" of mismanagement and a "paucity of any actions" against senior leaders involved in misconduct.

The staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because an appeal of his firing is pending, said he had little recourse because he was still on probation.

"I was naive about the internals at VA," he said. "It was bereft of professionalism."

House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., told Bonzanto at a hearing before his committee in the fall of 2019, "If I'm approached by a whistleblower from my district, I cannot in good conscience direct them to work with your office."

Bonzanto had long chafed at what she believed was inappropriate interference from the secretary's office in her hiring and management decisions, said three current and former VA officials.

Powers and Sitterly, the human resources chief, inquired with her several times to learn about pending investigations and the names of employees who had made disclosures, according to current and former agency officials.

They wanted to know whether the secretary's team was targeted. Bonzanto told them the information was confidential and could not be released.

"That organization was not succeeding," Powers said. "We tried to give her the tools to help it succeed."

Bonzanto declined to comment.

Wilkie appointed Sitterly as the accountability office's second-in-command in November, returning him to a career role from a political appointment. There was no open competition for the job, and Bonzanto was not informed beforehand, officials said.

Sitterly retired unexpectedly on Jan. 29. He did not respond to requests for comment.

Coleman said he met with Bonzanto before she left office and now has a new assignment, reporting to his ninth supervisor in three years.

Everett, people who know him say, is still waiting to find out if he will get his full responsibilities back. The Biden administration has informed him that his case would soon be under review.

The Washington Post's Alice Crites contributed to this report.