VA accountability office says it’s improved, but whistleblowers aren’t so sure

The Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP) is at a crucial moment in its short-lived tenure.

Congress is considering new legislation that it hopes will make the office more effective after years of fielding complaints about its performance from VA whistleblowers, oversight groups and even OAWP employees themselves.

And the Senate is considering the president’s nominee to lead the VA accountability office, a job senators described as “one of the most difficult” at the department.

Current OAWP leaders said they’ve made progress since 2019, when the VA inspector general said the office failed to protect whistleblowers and often misinterpreted its statutory mission.

The VA accountability office conducted roughly 350 investigations and issued 99 disciplinary recommendations since last April, Hansel Cordeiro, acting assistant secretary for the VA accountability office, told the House Veterans Affairs Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.

That includes 40 recommendations for senior leader misconduct, 29 for supervisor whistleblower retaliation and 30 non-disciplinary recommendations and corrective actions for whistleblowers, VA officials told Congress.

That’s better than previous years, when OAWP recommended seven senior VA leaders for discipline during an 18-month period.

But the department implemented about half of OAWP’s recommendations last year, and whistleblower advocates and oversight groups say the VA accountability office hasn’t done nearly enough to earn the trust of employees.

“I learned of two recent incidents where OAWP investigators felt they had an open and shut case, and VA leaders declined to act on the recommendations, citing other circumstances,” Rep. Tracey Mann (R-Kan.), the subcommittee’s ranking member, said Wednesday at a hearing. “This means one of two things. One, either the OAWP recommendations were sound but their poor reputation inside the agency leads VA officials to disregard their opinions, or two, OAWP recommendations were flawed and the recommendations should not have been made.”

Cordeiro said more employees have made disclosures to OAWP in recent years, which he sees as a sign of growing trust with the VA accountability office.

And Christopher Wilber, counsel to the VA inspector general, said his office is collecting fewer complaints through its hotline about how OAWP is handling their complaints.

Yet committee members on both sides of the aisle said it was “deeply concerning” VA had taken disciplinary action against only half of the senior leaders and supervisors OAWP had flagged within the last year.

OAWP deserves some credit for implementing the inspector general’s recommendations, Chris Pappas (D-N.H.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, acknowledged.

“Leadership hired needed staff, conducted training and they’ve reduced the backlog of investigations,” he said. “These are all good signs of improvement. However, what does this really mean for the whistleblowers themselves? My office continues to hear from employees who are confused and frustrated by OAWP’s procedures and communications.”

Committee members said they continue to hear from whistleblowers and OAWP employees themselves, who said they’ve experienced retaliation at the department. Whistleblowers also said VA often takes too long to settle their cases and make them whole. Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), the full committee’s chairman, called it a “merry-go-round of frustration.”

“Trust is hard to build and easy to lose, and VA has a lot of trust building to do after the last four years,” he said. “I am still waiting to see whether OAWP is successful in developing a reputation among veterans and whistleblowers as a trusted and effective ally.”

OAWP is looking for trends that might illustrate why VA often fails to implement disciplinary recommendations, the agency said. But OAWP ultimately lacks the authority to enforce and implement those recommendations, which both Congress and whistleblower acknowledge is part of the problem.

“The office has done a lot of the hard work over the past few years with good intentions… but even when they substantiate allegations, they’re still not holding people accountable for their actions,” said Melissa Wasser, policy counsel for the Project on Government Oversight. “That lack of enforcement is really hampering the agency.

The committee is considering two draft bills in effort to bring legislative reform to the office. Pappas’ legislation would give OAWP its own general counsel, which oversight and whistleblower advocacy groups said would help the office maintain more independence. OAWP today relies on VA’s general counsel to provide legal advice, and critics said the arrangement creates conflicts of interest.

Mann is working a second bill. His legislation would eliminate OAWP’s statutory authority to investigate allegations of senior leader misconduct and poor performance, as well as certain whistleblower retaliation complaints. The bill instead would transfer that authority to the Office of Special Counsel.

“I do not believe OAWP can succeed under its current structure,” Mann said. “No matter how many layers, how much money or how many new authorities may give it, the assistant secretary will still report to the secretary and will never truly be independent.”

But VA employees can and already do file whistleblower retaliation complaints with OSC, and it’s unclear how many file with both entities.

“This is an issue that we are not giving up or walking away from. The legislative drafts that are out there are just the beginning of the conversation on some of the remedies that will be considered as we move forward,” Pappas said. “I know this subcommittee has a lot of work in front of us, and we do hope we can find bipartisan consensus on this legislation.”

While the House considers legislative changes to OAWP, the Senate is hopeful new leadership might “right the ship,” as VA Committee Chairman Jon Tester (D-Mont.) put it.

Maryanne Donaghy, the president’s pick to lead OAWP, recognized the office has its challenges.

“I have deep and varied experience in investigations, implementing strategies that improve culture and leading functions within organizations that are designed for objective and deliberate analysis of problems,” she told the Senate VA Committee Wednesday during her nomination hearing. “I believe that this experience would serve me well to lead the office. If confirmed I pledge to give it my all, to lead with integrity, objectivity and excellence in its work product.”

Donaghy established an inspector general’s office for Philadelphia’s school district and has experience as a federal prosecutor, accountant and teacher during her career.

“For a relatively young office it has faced earned criticism, and we’re looking to you to bring a steady hand to that office,” Tester said.

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