Biden announces nominee to lead beleaguered VA accountability office

President Joe Biden has a new leader in mind for the accountability office at the Department of Veterans Affairs, an organization that was supposed to discipline senior leaders for poor performance, misconduct and retaliation but has struggled to live up to its original mission.

The president announced his intention Friday to nominate Maryanne Donaghy to lead VA’s Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection.

This is the second position requiring Senate confirmation that Biden has announced a nomination for at VA. He has not yet named a deputy secretary for the department or nominees to lead VA’s health, benefits and memorial assistance administrations.

If confirmed, Donaghy would bring a wide variety of experience to VA’s accountability office. She established an inspector general’s office for Philadelphia’s school district and has experience as a federal prosecutor, accountant and teacher.

She currently serves as an attorney and senior adviser at the University of Delaware’s Biden Institute and has taught accounting, law and criminal justice classes at the university.

“Donaghy has counseled numerous organizations, including non-profits, large corporations and governmental agencies, on response to federal, state and congressional investigations, and on building effective compliance programs,” the White House said Friday in its announcement. “Among other responsibilities, she has worked with a large university involving Title IX investigations, counseled a large pharmaceutical company under federal and state investigation involving marketing practices and provided advice to a hospital system regarding research misconduct allegations.”

VA Secretary Denis McDonough teased the nomination at a hearing Thursday, describing the president’s choice as having a “proven track record on accountability matters” and “great experience in setting up effective organizations.”

Donaghy faces a daunting task at OAWP if confirmed. VA’s accountability office, which the previous administration established in 2017 and Congress codified into law a year later, has consistently struggled to earn trust from VA employees and members of Congress.

VA Inspector General Michael Missal delivered a particularly tough assessment of OAWP back in 2019. He said a culture of retaliation still exists within the department, and the VA accountability office had failed to protect whistleblowers and often misinterpreted its statutory functions.

Lawmakers have said they’ve been fielding complaints about the VA accountability office since the beginning, despite attempts from past leadership to improve training for OAWP investigators.

Federal employment attorneys and VA employees themselves have told Federal News Network they didn’t trust OAWP to properly handle their cases.

In a 2020 report to Congress, OAWP said it recommended discipline for seven senior leaders within an 18-month period, a statistic that frustrated members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

“I’m wondering how much you will make a priority of ensuring that VA is going to protect the whistleblowers in the agency and ensure that they know their rights and know how to come forward with this information?” Rep. Chris Pappas (D-N.H.), chairman of the House VA Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, said at Thursday’s hearing.

“It’s a huge priority,” McDonough said. “I’ve been talking to the workforce about it since I started.”

McDonough said he met with the leaders of the accountability agencies within the department, including the VA inspector general.

“The life blood of a well-functioning agency is the free flow of good information. By good, I don’t mean only information that tells a positive story, I mean information that tells us what’s going on,” he said. “The free flow of that information is a prerequisite for us to be great. Any impediments of the free flow of the information, including the retaliation against whistleblowers [or] ignoring requests from the inspector general, those things will not be tolerated here, ever.”

VA’s inspector general has previously said OAWP posed unnecessary risks for whistleblowers at the department. In some cases, OAWP referred complaints back to the VA organizations that were the subjects of the problems whistleblowers complained about.

“I don’t know that there’s the culture that Mike Missal mentioned to you of retaliation, but if there is, we’re going to change it,” McDonough told the House committee. “That will take some doing, because the free-flow of information that tells the accurate story, good or bad, is what we need to succeed. We owe that to the vets; we owe that to you.”

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