VA whistleblowers are sworn in before a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

VA whistleblowers are sworn in before a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

VA Accounts for More Than One-Third of Government’s Whistleblower Complaints

Testy Senate panel blames IG vacancy, retaliators who go unpunished.

Employees of the Veterans Affairs Department have filed a stunning 35 percent of the 4,000 prohibited personnel practice complaints the government has received so far in 2015, surpassing the rate of the much-larger civilian workforce at the Defense Department, a Senate panel learned Tuesday.

Carolyn Lerner, who heads the Office of Special Counsel, said her team of 140 is “inundated with complaints” and will strain under the workload if sequestration-capped funding continues or if there are furloughs in another government shutdown. She attributed the increase to a VA medical staff that “cares deeply about the mission in an environment that is ripe for disclosures” because leaders over the past year and a half have made “them feel more free to come forward.”

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, convened the hearing to gather personal testimony from four VA whistleblowers (one who committed suicide was represented by his union representative) on how they reported lapses in health care treatment for veterans. Most said they suffered retaliation by supervisors or colleagues—which often included improper access to their own health and personnel records.

“There is nothing more corrosive to an organization than when individuals within that organization get away with mismanagement (or) retaliation and they’re not held accountable,” Johnson said in demanding to know why the complaints are high yet so few VA managers are fired. He and colleagues focused on the fact that the VA inspector general position has been vacant for 631 days.

“The most troubling aspect being that in the end, it’s the veterans who ultimately suffer when the courageous employees who expose wrongdoing are punished,” Johnson said after the hearing that came as the Senate is working on a bill to make it easier to fire people at the VA. “This hearing highlighted the urgent need for a permanent watchdog in order to establish accountability on the part of all VA employees.”

Lerner said too many managers found to have retaliated against whistleblowers receive only a slap on the wrist, and that “disciplinary action is the missing piece.” She also said VA managers defended themselves by saying they searched employee files only for demographic purposes, proposing an “easy fix” by halting the mingling of medical and demographic records in the system.

Linda Halliday, VA’s deputy inspector general whom an angry Johnson took to task for ignoring some whistleblowers, said the witnesses’ testimony made her “disenchanted with state of affairs at VA today.” The department needs “better education on how to properly lead,” she said, and “it is difficult trying to change the culture of the OIG to reward whistleblowers.”

Her office’s anonymous hotline receives 40,000 complaints a year from employees, veterans, their families and the general public, “making our hotline one of the largest and most active in the OIG community,” she testified. Her staff of 660 “must use our professional judgment to accept only the allegations that we believe represent the most serious risk,” she said. “The resources pale in comparison to VA’s massive decentralized and diverse facilities and the number of employees and the amount of funding needing regular oversight.”