OSC blows whistle on VA for whistleblower retaliation

The Office of Special Counsel is appealing directly to President Barack Obama after it found the Veterans Affairs Department tried to purposely fire whistleblowers for their actions.

Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said Tuesday at a Senate hearing  that she sent a letter to President Obama on Sept. 17, stating the VA has attempted to fire or suspend whistleblowers for minor indiscretions for activity directly related to the employee’s whistleblowing. Meanwhile, time mismanagement within the VA is going unpunished.

“In the letter I contrasted the lack to discipline in response to confirmed mismanagement at the Phoenix [Ariz.] and other locations with the penalties imposed on whistleblowers for minor indiscretions,” Lerner said before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “For instance one whistleblower faced termination for eating a few expired sandwiches worth $5.”

The letter outlines a number of instances such as the manager of a VA clinic falsifying government records and repeatedly overstating the amount of time she spent counseling veterans. Regional leaders were aware of the misconduct, but did not address it. VA’s medical oversight office, the Office of the Medical Inspector, only gave the manager and regional leaders a slap on the wrist.

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Meanwhile, the VA fired an employee and disabled veteran in Baltimore after he petitioned Congress for assistance with his own VA benefits claim. OSC said it received more than 2,000 cases from VA employees giving it the ability to compare the actions taken against whistleblowers with those taken.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, introduced a bill in March that would require the firing of any VA employee who retaliated against a whistleblower.

In response to McCaskill’s questioning about the bill, Carolyn Clancy, chief medical officer for the Veterans Health Administration, said she worried more firing might add more fear to VA leaders who are worried they may lose their jobs for problems within their facilities.

“This is the problem, they are more willing to hide the problem because they are worried about their bonus or they’re worried about how it’s going to look to people above them,” McCaskill said during the hearing.

The VA has been plagued with internal problem for years. The most notable case led to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigning last summer after the department hid months-long waiting times for veterans when trying to receive medical care.

The department has not had a congressionally confirmed inspector general since January 2014. Richard Griffin has been acting inspector general since that time.

OSC told Congress in written testimony that Congress may want to clarify OSC’s authority to seek information from other government agencies in its investigations of whistleblower retaliation.

OSC said its workload, especially in VA whistleblower cases, is steadily increasing. The agency asked Congress to lessen some of its procedural burdens of repetitive status reports by changing current law.

“Changes…would allow OSC to spend its limited resources on the investigation and prosecution of meritorious cases, providing OSC with the ability to generate more positive outcomes of the behalf of whistleblowers, the merit system and the taxpayers,” Lerner’s testimony said.

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