VA settles reprisal complaints of three whistleblowers

With help from the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) three Veterans Affairs whistleblowers received “full and fair relief’ for reprisals experienced after they brought to light abuses at the VA hospital in Phoenix.  They are Dr. Katherine Mitchell, Paula Pedene, and Damian Reese. Mitchell and Pedene, who were removed from their jobs, have been given new assignments. Reese, who received negative performance reviews, will remain in her position as program analyst.

In addition to making the individual settlements, the VA is establishing reforms in how it promotes accountability and handles whistleblower complaints. Mitchell expressed appreciation for the culture change at high levels but said, “I am waiting for it to trickle down to the Phoenix level.” Mitchell was one of four VA whistleblowers who testified at a July 8 Congressional hearing.

Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner at Sept. 9, 2014 hearing

Carolyn Lerner, OSC, at Sept. 9, 2014 hearing

Investigators have confirmed whistleblower allegations that employees were pressured to cover up long waits for appointments at VA hospitals. But, a law passed by Congress to make it easier to remove senior VA officials for misconduct appears to have failed to have the intended result. Senior managers targeted for firing are escaping punishment by retiring, taking advantage of a five-day waiting period allowed by the VA for responding to the decision. “A VA official said the agency has no legal authority to stop an employee from retiring or to prevent a retirement from taking effect in the five-day window.” (Wall Street Journal)

The three settled whistleblower complaints are just the tip of an iceberg of complaints filed by VA employees. The OSC, an independent federal agency tasked with receiving whistleblower disclosures and protecting whistleblowers from reprisal, reports that it is has “89 pending disclosures from VA employees who allege threats to patient health or safety,” and is reviewing more than 125 complaints of whistleblower retaliation filed by VA employees.

In a prepared statement for a September 9 hearing on the administration’s treatment of whistleblowers, Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner noted that her office received more than 5,000 cases overall by the end of fiscal year 2014, a challenge it handled with “120 employees and one of the smallest budgets of any federal law enforcement agency.”  The OSC’s FY 2014 budget justification cited a 68% increase in its workload for a workforce that had increased just 14%.

As Congress continues to uncover waste and abuse at federal agencies, increasing funding for whistleblower protection seems like the smart thing to do.

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Credits:  Photo by Linda Lewis.

Resources:

Phoenix VAMC Whistleblowers Obtain Significant Settlements. September 29, 2014 news release by the Office of Special Counsel.

Hearing examines health of federal whistleblowing, finds alarming changes. Whistleblowing Today, Sept. 16, 2014

Testimony of the Honorable Carolyn N. Lerner, Special Counsel, U.S. Office of Special Counsel. Sept. 9, 2014.

FY 2014 Budget for the Office of Special Counsel

 

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