Second whistleblower details allegations of harassment, retaliation by senior VA official amid inaction by whistleblower protection office

Updated: Nov. 22, 2019 at 12:06 AM EST
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DURHAM, N.C. (WBTV) – A second senior employee in the regional VA office that covers Virginia and North Carolina has come forward with public allegations of retaliation and abuse at the hands of a senior VA official.

WBTV has been investigating reports of mismanagement at the VA’s regional office, known as VISN 6, for more than a year.

First, a WBTV investigation in November 2018 uncovered that officials from the VISN 6 office—including the VISN director, DeAnne Seekins—and leaders at the Salisbury VA Medical Center failed to implement any of the discipline recommended by an EEO hearing officer against two senior doctors at Salisbury VAMC who were found to have been involved in sexually harassing a female employee and who failed to properly address the sexual harassment complaints, respectively.

Both doctors have been removed from their positions since WBTV’s initial investigation.

In May of this year, WBTV spoke with retired Lieutenant Colonel Joe Edger, who was removed from his job as deputy director of VISN 6 after filing a whistleblower complaint against Seekins, his boss.

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

“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 in his interview in May. “What makes my case worse is she tried to terminate me before she even investigated me.”

Now, a second senior VISN 6 employee is speaking to WBTV, detailing allegations of harassment and retaliation at the hand of Seekins.

The new whistleblower spoke with WBTV on the condition she not be named for fear of facing further retaliation at work.

“Her retaliation against me started a long time ago,” the whistleblower said of Seekins. “There was a case and she did not like the outcome. And she came to my office and told me she’d get even with me.”

Seekins did not respond to multiple requests for an interview for this story.

Both the new whistleblower and Edger have filed complaints with the VA’s Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, which was created by President Donald Trump with the goal of investigating whistleblower complaints and protecting those who sought to expose wrongdoing within the agency.

But that’s not what has happened for complaints file in VISN 6.

WBTV has spent roughly a year waiting for OAWP to provide records of complaints filed against Seekins and VISN 6 but the agency has not produced records responsive to the station’s request, despite repeated promises to do so.

But the agency has told WBTV that, as of October 1, 48 whistleblower complaints were open against VISN 6, some for more than a year and a half.

Related: Watchdog report substantiates claims of whistleblower retaliation by senior VA employees

The new whistleblower filed a complaint more than a year ago but nothing happened. She said an official from OAWP called her last week to say the office had lost her complaint but recently re-located it.

A VA spokesman refused an interview request for this story but issued a statement that defended the work being done by OAWP.

“Since her appointment as VA’s first Assistant Secretary for Accountability and Whistleblower Protection in January 2019, Dr. Tamara Bonzanto, has been actively working to make a number of improvements to OAWP’s investigative process, including more timely and thorough investigations and better communication with whistleblowers,” the statement said.

The spokesman’s statement also sought to cast doubt on the validity of whistleblowers’ claims.

“The department encourages employees to identify problems and will not tolerate any efforts to retaliate against those individuals,” the statement said. “But identifying as a whistleblower doesn’t automatically give credence to someone’s claims nor does it shield them from accountability when they have failed to uphold VA’s values.”

The new whistleblower was recently removed from her senior-level VISN position without any notice or notification of what she had done to trigger the personnel action.

She said veterans are not well served by the toxic culture inside VISN 6, which has, so far, gone unchecked by OAWP and VA leadership and has prompted employees to leave.

“We will continue to lose the rest of the good employees at the VISN; most of them have left,” the whistleblower said.

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