VA whistleblowers blast ‘half-assed’ investigations into retaliation

VA whistleblowers blast ‘half-assed’ investigations into retaliation
© Getty Images

Whistleblowers who shed light on problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs on Tuesday detailed the retaliation they’ve faced while criticizing the investigations into their cases.

Three whistleblowers and a relative of another whistleblower who committed suicide testified at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing that there has been a lack of accountability in the investigations.

“The VA OIG investigations have not been after the truth,” said Shea Wilkens, one of the whistleblowers, referring to the Office of Inspector General. “The VA OIG investigations have been half-assed and shoddy.”

Senators on the committee vowed the whistleblowers’ testimony would lead to concrete action and legislation, and VA officials promised that changes are already happening.

The first step to addressing ongoing issues, senators from both parties said, is appointing a permanent inspector general at the department.

“Let me call on the president of the United States to please, if possible, appoint an independent, permanent inspector general,” said committee Chairman Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonHouse GOP sets three FBI interviews in Clinton probe Overnight Health Care — Sponsored by PCMA — House passes 'right to try' drug bill | Trump moves to restrict abortion referrals House approves 'right to try,' sends bill to Trump's desk MORE (R-Wis.).

The whistleblowers praised the Office of Special Counsel for helping end some retaliation but said the office needs to be given more power to step into the process before retaliation starts.

Among the steps the Office of Special Counsel has taken is creating an expedited review process for retaliation cases in an attempt to get quicker relief, said Carolyn Lerner, special counsel from the office.

There have been 30 corrective actions so far as a result of this process, she added.

One employee has been fired from the VA for retaliating against whistleblowers, said Carolyn Clancy, chief medical officer of the Veterans Health Administration.

“We’re committed to doing better on that front,” she said, adding that other employees have also been disciplined.

Linda Halliday, deputy inspector general of the VA, said she’s working to change the culture of her office by strengthening whistleblower training and ombudsman programs.

Johnson was not convinced by Halliday’s testimony, slamming a June report issued by the VA OIG about problems at the VA medical center in Tomah, Wis.

Johnson said information in that report about suspected marijuana use by one whistleblower who committed suicide showed the inspector general itself was retaliating against the whistleblowers.

“This comes from an Office of the Inspector General that says, ‘Whistleblowers are a valuable part. The OIG values whistleblowers. Reprisal in unacceptable,’ ” Johnson said. “That sounds like reprisal to me — to a dead person.”