Blowing the whistle on wrongdoing at the Department of Veterans Affairs can mean risking everything from losing a job to losing the respect of co-workers. But in fighting whistleblower retaliation today, the Office of Special Counsel hopes future whistleblowers will come forward without fear of punishment.
“These folks who blow the whistle and face retaliation, they often see their careers and their professional development halted, and their relationships with their coworkers sour. And that’s why this can be a difficult and often risky decision to blow the whistle,” Eric Bachman, OSC deputy special counsel for litigation and legal affairs, said on Federal Drive with Tom Temin.
“We have given what I believe is unprecedented attention to these cases. The amount of time and resources that the agency has put into investigating and attempting to resolve these cases has been simply herculean,” Bachman said. “It involves scores of attorneys who over the last several months have spent inordinate amounts of time trying to get to the bottom of these disclosures, and where there are meritorious whistleblower retaliation cases, get them relief.”
Since April 2014, when the first reports of wrongdoing at a Phoenix, Arizona VA medical center came to light, Bachman said his office has received 175 cases of VA workers blowing the whistle on issues of patient health and safety. Of those, 150 remain in the pipeline, waiting to be investigated, closed, or settled with the VA.
“We’ve been inundated with complaints. And the complaints from VA employees run the gamut, but as I mentioned, we really try to prioritize complaints that involve dangers to patient health and safety,” Bachman said. “I think word has gotten out to federal employees that we are an effective tool for them to use where they want to disclose wrongdoing or where they believe they’ve been retaliated against for disclosing wrongdoing.”
When a complaint first comes in, OSC’s Complaints Examining Division does an initial review of the case to make sure OSC has jurisdiction over the matter. If that happens, the case is usually referred to the Investigation and Prosecution division, which takes an in-depth look at the merits of the case.
“Ultimately, there’s a decision made of should we just proceed with a formal investigation of this case or might it be that we can mediate this case, settle this case early on,” Bachman said. “And that’s what we’ve tried to do — identify some of those cases that are more amenable to an early settlement and see if we can get corrective action for whistleblowers earlier on.”
Under a recently proposed rule, contracting whistleblowers would also be able to submit their disclosures to OSC.
While OSC works on behalf of whistleblowers, discipling the managers who punishment them is mostly headed up by VA.
“We’re encouraged that the VA is considering whistleblower retaliation when it makes disciplinary decisions against higher level officials. So, if there’s evidence that an official has retaliated against a whistleblower, the VA is taking that into account when it decides whether to discipline them, and what the discipline should be,” Bachman said. “We will seek discipline when we believe it’s appropriate and where our efforts are not going to be duplicating the efforts of the VA and their investigation.”