VA whistleblower complaints allege abuse, retaliation from regional director

Updated: Jan. 18, 2019 at 9:57 PM EST
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DURHAM, NC (WBTV) – A senior leader with the United States Department of Veterans Affairs has been accused of abusing her power, harassing employees and retaliating against other senior leaders who report to her.

The accusations have come in three separate complaints filed by employees who work in VISN 6—the VA’s regional office that is responsible for healthcare in North Carolina and Virginia—with the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection.

OAWP was created by President Donald Trump in April 2017 to “discipline or terminate any VA manager or employee who has violated the public’s trust and failed to carry out his or her duties on behalf of veterans, and to recruit, reward, and retain high-performing employees,” among other things.

The office was further codified in a law enacted by Congress in June 2017.

Each of the three employees outlined grievances against DeAnne Seekins, the VISN 6 Director.

Related: Documents show VA leadership failed to stop sexual harassment at Salisbury VA

WBTV has agreed to conceal the details of two of the complaints, including the identity of the complainants, because the two employees feared further reprisal for blowing the whistle.

The third complaint was filed by Joseph Edger, who served as Deputy Network Director—the second-in-command in VISN 6—before Seekins got the job as director and continued in the role afterwards.

Edger is a retired Lieutenant Colonel who managed healthcare in the Army.

He filed his complaint with OAWP in February 2018.

“The Network Director (Mrs. Seekins) has actively abused her authority by defaming, harassment & intimidated, and threatening myself and VISN staff,” Edger wrote in his complaint.

Later in his submission to OAWP, Edger alleges Seekins’ behavior towards him was retaliation for disciplinary action he took against her when he was Deputy Network Director and she was the director of the Durham VA Medical Center, which reported to VISN 6.

“I feel that Mrs. Seekins may be retaliating against me for my actions while assigned as the Deputy Network Director under Mr. Dan Hoffmann’s leadership,” Edger said. “Mr. Hoffmann would oftentimes use me as an enforcer of policy and directives.”

Specifically, Edger said he was told to counsel Seekins when she ran a $20 million budget deficit one year while working as the director of the Salisbury VAMC.

A second VISN 6 employee who filed a complaint with OAWP accused Seekins of taking similar retaliatory action.

Through a spokesman, Seekins refused to issue a statement for this story.

The spokesman insisted that Seekins could not respond unless Edger filled out a waiver allowing her to speak. Seekins did not seek such a waiver from Edger and, instead, insisted a WBTV reporter obtain it.

Later, a second VA spokesman insisted the waiver was required as a “standard practice” of the agency but, when challenged by a WBTV reporter, could not provide a specific policy to support the claim.

Related: Doctors removed from supervisory positions at Salisbury VA after WBTV investigation

Instead, Seekins sent an email to all VISN 6 staff on Friday in which she responded to the upcoming story.

The subject of her email was “Heads Up – Negative News Story (VISN 6).”

In the email, Seekins issued a response to details of the upcoming story that a WBTV reporter had provided a spokesman in an effort to obtain a comment to include in the story.

DeAnne Seekins claimed she couldn't respond to question from WBTV but sent this email to VA...
DeAnne Seekins claimed she couldn't respond to question from WBTV but sent this email to VA staff ahead of our story.

“I want to give you a heads up regarding a negative news story that we understand will run tomorrow in the Charlotte news market. Nick Ochsner of WBTV in Charlotte has notified us that the station intends to run his story about employee whistle blower complaints that allege I have personally fostered a hostile work environment for some employees in VISN 6,” Seekins’ email said.

“Mr. Ochsner is a very competent, aggressive and hard-hitting reporter who I respect. However, in this case, I believe he has been misguided. While the story contends that it is based on official complaints submitted to the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower protection (OAWP), I am aware of only one open complaint and unaware of any previous complaints of hostile work environment,” she continued.

By law, OAWP cannot disclose the identity of an employee who has filed a complaint with the office to the employee’s supervisor.

Sources familiar with Seekins’ communications strategy told WBTV on Friday that the same message sent to VISN 6 employees ahead of WBTV’s story was also sent to North Carolina’s congressional delegation and to various veterans service organizations.

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