For years, the Department of Veterans Affairs has been accused of routinely retaliating against whistleblowers. The problems prompted President Trump to issue an executive order last year creating the VA’s Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection last year. Since June, the office has received over 1,000 operational complaints, according to a spokesperson.
There are documented instances of whistleblower retaliation across the government, but the retaliation problem is far more entrenched at the VA, according to the legal director of a nonprofit called the Government Accountability Project, who has worked on federal whistleblower cases for decades.
“The VA is by far the most repressive federal agency in the government,” he told NPR recently. “Depending on the year, between a third and 40 percent of whistleblower retaliation complaints for the whole government comes from this one agency.”
The core problem, he says, is that the VA’s structure is essentially feudal. The national office has little actual power to crack down on problems in local areas.
Has that changed with the creation of the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection? Maybe not, according to the whistleblowers.
Consider the case of one VA employee in Northern Indiana. He reported what he believed to be fraudulently awarded contracts for water filtration systems for the hospitals in his area. His complaint was initially handled by the Office of the Inspector General before the new office was put in place.
At first, his complaint seemed to be taken seriously. When he filed his complaint with the new whistleblower protection office, however, things changed. Last march his managers accused him of inappropriate behavior with coworkers and stripped him of his duties. A veteran with PTSD, he believes he was not only targeted for retaliation but gaslighted.
He wasn’t fired, though. He was assigned to an isolated office with no heating or air conditioning and has been given no job assignments for a year.
The VA, although claiming it would not comment on an open investigation, did say that the man’s retaliation claims were found unsubstantiated.
But other whistleblowers told NPR that they haven’t seen any progress on their retaliation cases, either.
The legal director of the Government Accountability Office suspects that the new office suffers from the same problem as always. It simply doesn’t have the capacity to impose accountability. NPR also noted that the office is understaffed by approximately a third.
If you work for the VA and are considering blowing the whistle on fraud, mismanagement or waste, you need to protect yourself from possible retaliation. Discuss your situation with a federal employment law attorney before taking any concrete steps. Your lawyer can help you develop a convincing case and limit the possibility of retaliation.