VA IG announces retirement amid criticism
By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 1, 2015
This story has been updated.
WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs acting inspector general said Tuesday he will retire this week, amid criticism from whistleblowers calling for his ouster and claims he whitewashed wrongdoing within the agency.
Deputy Inspector General Richard Griffin touted his office’s achievements and said his last day at the VA will be Saturday, the Fourth of July, what he called a “fitting day for an organization that prides itself on independence and integrity.”
But his departure is likely to be seen as a victory to a group of 40 whistleblowers who were hoping to meet with President Barack Obama in Wisconsin on Thursday to ask that a new inspector general be named. Griffin led the inspector general’s office investigations in the wake of the VA’s wait-time scandal last year and became a familiar face on Capitol Hill, where he often drew fire from lawmakers frustrated by agency dysfunction.
Dr. Katherine Mitchell, one of the original whistleblowers whose reporting on wrongdoing within the Phoenix VA Health Care System led to a national scandal, said the IG’s office under Griffin has been “a watchdog that doesn’t bite, it just barks.”
“They suppressed so many reports and a lot of those reports have significant findings,” she said. “The OIG investigations always seemed to be whitewashed.”
Griffin, who has spent more than 43 years in federal service and was serving as an interim IG, will be replaced by Linda Halliday, assistant inspector general for audits and evaluations, until a permanent replacement is chosen.
“Your collective effort and hard work have resulted in a remarkable record of performance and outstanding achievements,” Griffin said to his staff, according to a news release.
The IG office is charged with investigating VA wrongdoing as an independent watchdog and has been responsible 11,350 arrests, indictments, convictions and administrative sanctions during the past six years, according to Griffin.
He said in April the office was named the second most productive IG in the federal government for its work during the past five years. Certainly the VA IG has released thousands of pages of investigative documents — many subpoenaed by Congress — over the past year.
Most recently, the IG drew flak from Congress over its refusal to provide records of its investigation into whether the VA staff was overprescribing opiates to patients at the Tomah VA Medical Center in Wisconsin.
The IG spent two years investigating the allegations but closed the case without making the results public. About five months later, a Marine inpatient at the clinic died when his new prescription of narcotic painkillers had a toxic reaction with 14 medications he was taking.
The whistleblowers said the investigation at Tomah is indicative of a “horrifying pattern of whitewashing and deceit.”
The Project on Government Oversight released a statement saying the VA IG’s office was “in desperate need of new leadership -- the kind of aggressive and independent oversight sorely lacking under Mr. Griffin’s tenure.” Danielle Brian, executive director of the nonprofit watchdog, said in the statement: “Instead of being a champion of whistleblowers, Mr. Griffin was part of the VA’s toxic culture of intimidation and retaliation.”
Mitchell, who criticized Griffin’s report on the Phoenix VA Health Care System while sitting just feet from him at a September congressional hearing, said she is cautiously optimistic about the change but that Griffin’s replacement will have to be someone with the ability to shift the culture of the office.
“I think it gives the (Office of Inspector General) an opportunity to set a new direction,” she said.
Stars and Stripes reporter Heath Druzin contributed to this article from Phoenix, Ariz.