Protecting whistleblowers while ensuring transparency and responsiveness are what lawmakers said they are looking for in the candidates to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General and the Office of Special Counsel.
On Tuesday, Michael Missal, President Barack Obama’s nominee as the VA IG, and Carolyn Lerner, who was nominated for a second term as special counsel for the OSC, appeared before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, to answer questions and offer members assurances that they would work together to reform the struggling agency.
“I recognize the important role an inspector general can play in assisting the committee and Congress in its oversight responsibilities,” Missal said. “I think you’ll find me highly communicative, I do respond very quickly to requests. I may not always have the answer right away, sometimes it takes time to develop it, but I just believe it’s important to keep people informed of the progress so you know exactly what’s going on.”
“In 2015, for the first time in the agency’s history, we received and resolved over 6,000 cases, a 50 percent increase from 2011, when I took office,” Lerner said. “This dramatic increase in filings indicates that whistleblowers believe they can make a difference by bringing a claim to OSC. Studies have shown that the number one reason employees do not report waste, fraud or abuse is not because they fear retaliation. It is because they do not believe any good will come from their risk. If the number of whistleblower cases is any indication of employees’ willingness to raise concerns — and I think it is — then we are certainly moving in the right direction.”
The VA has for years been plagued by problems ranging from backlogged disability claims to budget overruns to whistleblower retaliation. As early as September, Lerner testified at a hearing that she had sent a letter to President Obama, stating the VA had attempted to fire or suspend whistleblowers for minor indiscretions for activity directly related to the employee’s whistleblowing.
The department has not had a congressionally-confirmed inspector general since January 2014. Richard Griffin has been acting inspector general since that time.
In November, Missal appeared before the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs. He currently works as a partner at K&L Gates LLP, an international law firm based in Washington.
During that appearance as well as his Jan. 12 appearance before the homeland security committee, Missal acknowledged that this was a “critical time” for the department, and that the IG position would play a significant role in cutting waste, fraud and abuse of power, as well as address whistleblower protection.
“If confirmed, one of my goals will be to promote an improved environment in which whistleblowers have confidence that their concerns will be fairly and effectively considered by the Office of Inspector General and that their identities will be protected from disclosure,” Missal said. “I will also take the necessary steps to ensure that whistleblowers are fully aware of their right to be free from reprisal for making protected disclosures and how to seek redress from appropriate authorities if reprisal occurs.”
Senate homeland committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and the committee’s ranking member,
Sen. Thomas Carper ( D-Del.), both highlighted whistleblower retaliation in their statements and questions.
At the Tomah VA Medical Center in his home state, Johnson said a doctor committed suicide after he was fired for reporting over-medication procedures. Months later, Johnson said, a white paper published by the VA OIG urged readers to review a sheriff’s report on the doctor, which mentioned marijuana and drug paraphernalia in his home.
“I have no idea what any of this had to do with the issue at hand. … This is the office of the inspector general, writing a report that is retaliating against a dead whistleblower,” Johnson said.
Carper highlighted the case of mismanagement at the Dover Air Force Base mortuary and the OSC coming to the defense of the whistleblowers.
“We all know whistleblowers play an important role, and an increasingly important role in routing out waste and fraud and abuse in the government,” Carper said .”They’re often the first to raise concerns and highlight instances where we can better serve the American people. The special counsel office also plays an important role in ensuring whistleblowers are heard and protected after they speak up.”
Heading in a new direction
Committee members who attended the nomination hearing brought other concerns from their home states and constituents, including struggles with the Veterans Choice Program, interoperability of health records and mental health care.
“We have to have a watchdog, because this is a very big bureaucracy that thinks they’re just gonna wait this out. That if people’s attention just deviates from the problems of the past, that we will in fact be pulled off target,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.)
Missal told the committee he would immerse himself in the work of the OIG to get an understanding on the status of outstanding and incomplete investigations, as well as work to make the office as transparent and responsive as possible with congressional members.
Lerner pledged to continue her office’s work to investigate, mediate and resolve cases from all agencies, while also helping to keep the VA headed in the right direction.
“There is a really good message that’s coming from the top,” Lerner said. “That sets a tone that is really important. The problem is the VA is such a large institution, it has so many facilities, it has regions and then individual facilities, and that message has to trickle down throughout the country and it may take a little bit of time.”