Senior VA leader: VA has ‘lost touch with its values’ as whistleblower office is investigated for mishandling complaints

Updated: May. 21, 2019 at 4:44 PM EDT
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DURHAM, N.C. (WBTV) - A senior VA leader-turned-whistleblower is breaking his silence for the first time to detail the way he says his case has been mishandled, as the VA office responsible for investigating whistleblower complaints is investigated itself by the agency’s internal watchdog.

The VA’s Office of Inspector General is investigating the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection amid allegations the office failed to properly investigate some complaints, improperly dismissed others and helped to retaliate against whistleblowers.

Joe Edger, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who went to work for the VA, is among the agency’s employees who says his case was mishandled.

After retiring from the Army, Edger took a job as the Deputy Network Director at VA’s office that oversees healthcare in North Carolina and Virginia, known as VISN 6.

Previous: VA whistleblower complaints allege abuse, retaliation from regional director

In that role, Edger was the second-in-command of a network that includes seven major medical centers and dozens of other clinics.

But, currently, he sits at a cubicle at the VISN 6 offices, not technically fired but, also, not in it, either.

Why? Edger says he’s the victim of retaliation from his boss, VISN 6 Director DeAnne Seekins.

WBTV has previously detailed the allegations of retaliation Edger has said he faced since Seekins took over as director.

The retaliation, he claims, stems from disciplinary action Edger, as deputy network director, took against Seekins when she was director of the Durham VA Medical Center and ran a massive budget shortfall.

“First, she isolated me, she sent me to work from home then she tried to intimidate me with counseling and rumors and threats,” Edger said. ”What makes my case worse is she tried to terminate me before she even investigated me.”

Related: Outgoing VA deputy undersecretary offered last-minute settlement to NC whistleblower

Although WBTV has previously obtained complaints Edger has filed about Seekins’ behavior with OAWP and the Office of Special Counsel, he has never publicly spoken about them before.

But he decided to break his silence now—and risk suffering further consequences—after he learned his whistleblower complaint had been suddenly dismissed after more than a year without anyone telling him.

Edger’s concerns about OAWP’s handling of his complaint started, he says, not long after he first filed it.

“As I started asking for status updates, I wasn’t getting status updates,” he said. “I was concerned about the integrity of the OAWP office.”

Specifically, he was concerned that staff at the office had shared details of his complaint with his boss. Edger said the harassment he received from Seekins escalated after he filed his complaint.

“Harassment and intimidation and threats started to increase, so I started to question if the OAWP office kept my name confidential as I requested,” he said.

Previous: Records show senior VA leadership accessed private medical records of whistleblower employee

WBTV has previously reported documents that show Edger’s confidential VA medical file was accessed by staff at the VISN office.

It’s when he called to update OAWP staff about that development that he learned his previous complaints had been dismissed a month earlier. Nobody had notified him that his case was no longer pending.

Now, Edger’s legal team is trying to send information about his treatment directly to Tamara Bonzanto, who was confirmed to lead OAWP in January as Assistant Secretary of Veterans Affairs for the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection.

In the meantime, Edger gave an interview to investigators with the VA’s Office of Inspector General as part of the OIG’s months-long investigation into OAWP’s handling of whistleblower complaints.

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

We sent details of Edger’s case to Congressman Mark Takano (D-CA), Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. In response, Takano issued the following statement:

“This and recent news that the Office of Whistleblower Protection is under investigation raise concerns about an atmosphere ripe with intimidation where whistleblowers fear reprisal,” Takano said. “Accountability at VA is critical for our veterans and the Committee will further examine this law during hearings this summer.”

While the leader of the House committee tasked with VA oversight expressed concern at both Edger’s situation and the allegations against OAWP more generally, North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis, who sits on the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, has declined to weight in on Edger’s situation when approached by WBTV for two different stories.

“The Senator’s office is reserving judgment at this time because we don’t have all the facts yet. We look forward to reviewing any documents and reports that come from the OIG or relevant parties,” Tillis spokesman Daniel Keylin said in response to a request for comment for this story.

As the investigation continues, Edger says the lack of accountability at the VA is taking a toll on the care veterans receive.

“The amount of money and time wasted on my case alone is distracting administrators, doctors and nurses from providing care,” Edger said.

A spokeswoman for the VA sent the following statement in response to a request for comment for this story:

“VA does not tolerate retaliation against employees who have made a protected disclosure. Any employee who feels they have been retaliated against for making a protected disclosure is encouraged to contact VA’s Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP).

VA welcomes the inspector general’s oversight, and for the last several months we’ve been cooperating closely with the IG on its assessment and encouraging the office to release its report as soon as possible.

We had hoped to receive the IG’s report on this assessment in January, when VA Assistant Secretary for Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Dr. Tamara Bonzanto was sworn in so she could use it as a roadmap to ensure OAWP is operating exactly as Congress intended and with maximum efficiency.

Without the benefit of the IG’s recommendations, however, Dr. Bonzanto has been assessing OAWP’s performance and has been working on a number of key improvements to ensure the office is complying with Congress’ intent. These include providing timelier resolutions, more responsive recommendations and enhancing communications with whistleblowers.”

But Edger said mid-level leaders like Seekins across the VA suffers from a lack of culture that values personal promotion over the care of veterans.

“Until we fix that (culture) and expose that and remove these folks, we’re not going to be able to get the morale of the VA employees where it needs to be, a healthy state so they can help our veterans,” he said.

Seekins has previously refused to provide a substantive comment in response to Edger’s allegations when asked for multiple stories over a period of months.

“I know what right looks like and I know what not right looks like and this is not right,” Edger said. “If they can do this to me as a senior VA leader, imagine how many other employees out there they can do this to.”

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