Watchdog report substantiates claims of whistleblower retaliation by senior VA employees

Updated: Oct. 25, 2019 at 2:40 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) – A new report released by the US Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of Inspector General substantiated claims of whistleblower retaliation by senior leaders within the agency, including officials who led the office charged with protecting whistleblowers.

Click here to read the report released by the US Department of Veteran Affairs inspector general

The report, released Thursday, found leaders who led the VA’s Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection failed to take proper steps to protect the identity of whistleblowers, failed to properly investigate some complaints and, in some cases, helped other senior agency leadership retaliate against people who reported wrongdoing.

OAWP was created by President Donald Trump as part of his pledge to clean up corruption within the mid- and senior-level ranks of the agency.

WBTV first reported the OIG investigation into OAWP in May.

At the time, we detailed the case of Joe Edger, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who served as the deputy director of the VA region that includes North Carolina and Virginia.

Edger was removed from his job after reporting retaliation by his boss.

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

In an interview with WBTV at the time, Edger claimed Peter O’Rourke, who led OAWP from its creation until his short tenure as Acting VA Secretary, worked with Edger’s boss—VISN 6 Director DeAnne Seekins—to try and fire him after he filed his complaint.

The OIG’s report detailed instances in which O’Rourke took part in activities that seemed to retaliate against VA employees who had filed reports with his office.

“Mr. O’Rourke proposed the removal of an OAWP employee who made a protected whistleblower disclosure,” the report found.

The report also found that O’Rourke and other former, senior OAWP leaders had a “lack of familiarity” with regulations that called for the protection of the identity of whistleblowers.

“The OIG identified an instance in which the OAWP opened an investigation that could be considered retaliatory against a whistleblower,” the report said.

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

US Representative Mark Takano (R-CA), who chairs the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, released a statement in reaction to the OIG’s findings.

“The Inspector General report leaves little doubt that VA’s whistleblower office has failed to do its most important job -- protect whistleblowers,” the statement said in part.

“VA has a long way to go to ensure they can adequately investigate whistleblower claims and protect those that courageously speak up—OAWP’s most important mission,” the statement continued. “Whistleblowers should have the confidence that OAWP will investigate disclosures of wrongdoing, and that whistleblowers will receive protection against retaliation.”

Dr. Tamara Bonzanto was confirmed as the first Assistant Secretary for Accountability and Whistleblower Protection earlier this year. Previous OAWP leaders, including O’Rourke, had not served at the assistant secretary level.

Bonzanto and VA OIG Michael Missal will testify before Congress regarding the report next week.

On Friday afternoon, a spokeswoman for the VA sent a lengthy statement seeking to distinguish the efforts of OAWP under Bonzanto from the OIG’s findings about the office’s actions under previous leaders.

“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 Susan Carter said.

“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,” Carter’s statement continued. "While OAWP continues to improve under its new leadership, VA’s institutional approach to accountability is completely different than that of past administrations, and the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017 has been a key factor in that culture change. "

Carter did not immediately respond to a follow-up question Friday afternoon about what efforts, if any, the VA is taking to address the retaliation alleged by VA employees like Edger and others who have filed whistleblower reports within VISN 6 and who still have not had their cases fully investigated.

Seekins, the VISN 6 Director, has denied any wrongdoing through a spokesman.

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