Ross D. Franklin/AP

VA's Phoenix Whistleblowers Win Undisclosed Settlement

Special counsel obtains relief for three who were retaliated against for reporting corrupt patient scheduling, financial misconduct.

Three Veterans Affairs Department employees who blew the whistle on patient scheduling problems and financial mismanagement at the VA’s Phoenix medical center have won settlements for their claims of management retaliation.

The Office of Special Counsel on Monday announced it had obtained “full and fair” relief for Katherine Mitchell, Paula Pedene and Damian Reese, though details of the settlements were not disclosed.

Since VA was hit by scandal this spring, lawmakers from both parties have called for a criminal investigation into whether VA officials potentially committed fraud by lying about patient wait times so they could meet performance measures that would-win them bonuses. Whistleblowers played a key role in the exposing the issues, which resulted in reform legislation signed by President Obama in August.

“Dr. Mitchell, Ms. Pedene, and Mr. Reese followed their consciences and reported wrongdoing, and their efforts have improved care and accountability at the VA,” Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said. “I applaud the VA’s leadership for taking actions to quickly resolve these cases and [take] concrete steps to change the VA’s culture. The settlements allow these courageous employees to return to successful careers at the VA. VA leadership is sending a clear message: whistleblowing should be encouraged, not punished.”

The three cases are the first since VA’s post-scandal reforms, which include overhauling the department’s Office of Medical Inspector, setting up an expedited review process for whistleblowers and creating an Office of Accountability Review.

The three whistleblowers who won settlements had received demotions and poor performance ratings for speaking out. Dr. Mitchell, a 16-year veteran, was removed as director of the Phoenix facility’s emergency room after reporting understaffing and poor triage training. She is now in a new position overseeing quality of patient care.

Pedene, with two decades’ experience as spokeswoman at the facility, disclosed numerous instances of financial mismanagement by former leaders in Phoenix. She was then investigated by VA management on “unsubstantiated charges,” the OSC said, relieved of her job duties and assigned to an office in the basement library. She is now a national program specialist in the Veterans Health Administration’s Office of Communications.

Reese, a program analyst, raised concerns about the waiting times imposed on veterans seeking primary care. He then saw his annual performance rating downgraded by a senior official who had read his email.

The Special Counsel continues to process 125 other complaints related to the VA scandal from around the country. Though a separate secure reporting channel, the office also has 89 pending whistleblower disclosures, 51 of which have been referred to VA for investigation.