VA whistleblower protection office failed in all goals: Watchdog report

PHOTO: The seal of the United States Department of Veterans Affairs at the entrance to the Santa Fe National Cemetery in Santa Fe, May 27, 2019. PlayRobert Alexander/Getty Images
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An office at the Department of Veterans' Affairs specifically created by President Donald Trump to clean up the challenged agency has failed in each of its objectives and created circumstances that could put whistleblowers at risk for retaliation.

Retaliation against whistleblowers has been a persistent issue at the VA. Current and former employees who voiced concerns about the treatment of veterans or mismanagement at the agency have testified that they have been fired for filing complaints or faced other forms of retaliation.

The VA inspector general found that the VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection has failed to meet its stated goals under the Whistleblower Protection Act, according to the report released Thursday.

The report found that the office established to protect whistleblowers who raised concerns has actually caused more employees to report that they fear retaliation from the same office if they file a complaint.

"In its first two years of operation, the OAWP acted in ways that were inconsistent with its statutory authority while it simultaneously floundered in its mission to protect whistleblowers," the report says.

"Even recognizing that organizing the operations of any new office is challenging, OAWP leaders made avoidable mistakes early in its development that created an office culture that was sometimes alienating to the very individuals it was meant to protect. Those leadership failures distracted the OAWP from its core mission and likely diminished the desired confidence of whistleblowers and other potential complainants in the operations of the office."

PHOTO: The seal of the United States Department of Veterans Affairs at the entrance to the Santa Fe National Cemetery in Santa Fe, May 27, 2019. Robert Alexander/Getty Images
The seal of the United States Department of Veterans Affairs at the entrance to the Santa Fe National Cemetery in Santa Fe, May 27, 2019.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., ranking member on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said the administration's handling of the office is shocking.

"By politicizing and mismanaging whistleblower protection, they've done a disservice to our nation's veterans and the dedicated VA employees who show up to serve them every day," he said in a statement.

"Congress passed this bipartisan law to ensure that whistleblowers within the Department are protected and that bad actors could be held accountable if they weren't serving veterans' best interest."

The whistleblower protection office has no written policies and procedures and is mostly staffed with human resources staff who have no specific training in whistleblower protection or conducting investigations, according to the report, though it said they are in the process of drafting written procedures.

The Department of Veterans Affairs agreed to take multiple steps to improve the office's procedures.

"VA appreciates the inspector general's oversight and has been encouraging the IG to complete this work for some time, but it's important to note that this report largely focuses on OAWP's operations under previous leaders who no longer work at VA," spokeswoman Christina Mandreucci said in a statement.

"Under the leadership of VA's first Assistant Secretary for Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, Dr. Tamara Bonzanto, the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection independently identified many of the issues the IG highlighted."

She said the office has already taken steps to prevent retaliation against whistleblowers and improve training and oversight of investigations, which the agency feels wasn't fully acknowledged in the IG report.

In at least 51 cases, the report says the office forwarded whistleblower complaints about retaliation from a superior to other VA programs without taking steps to protect the identity of the whistleblower. In another case the head of the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection initiated an investigation of a whistleblower who had a complaint pending against a senior leader with a social relationship with the head of the office.

Trump created the office through an executive order in 2017 that followed a new law passed by Congress to amp up whistleblower protections.

"With the creation of this office, we are sending a strong message: Those who fail our veterans will be held, for the first time, accountable," Trump said at the time.