"I cannot in good faith direct them to your office," a top lawmaker tells the head of VA's whistleblower office.
A top official at the Veterans Affairs Department said on Tuesday she is righting the ship at the whistleblower protection office that had veered far off course from its mission, but lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and a watchdog said VA still needs to make significant cultural and procedural changes.
The department’s Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection has engaged in a housecleaning of its problematic practices and top leaders, its new leader, Assistant Secretary Tammy Bonzanto, said at a House Veterans Affairs Committee panel hearing. Lawmakers appeared unconvinced the steps would prove sufficient, however, and noted many key improvements have yet to be implemented.
When asked if a culture of accountability now exists at the whistleblower office, VA Inspector General Mike Missal said his office “did not find that.” Missal’s scathing report issued last week found systemic and pervasive issues at OAWP, including retaliation against the whistleblowers it was meant to help, a lack of consistent and thorough investigatory practices and a failure to discipline virtually any senior leaders. Bonzanto conceded she had to pause any effort to recommend discipline for potential wrongdoing as the office looks to improve in investigative practices. While the assistant secretary took over the office earlier this year and has won some praise for instituting changes, she faced criticism for failing to institute standard operating procedures for investigations. Bonzanto promised those would be coming by the end of the year.
It is a “misreading of the OIG’s report” to say OAWP’s problems are in the past, said Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H., who chairs the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee that held the hearing. While Bonzanto said VA has already addressed 10 of the IG’s 22 recommendations, “I do not believe this to be true,” Pappas added. “So far the office has not achieved [its] basic mission.”
Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., chairman of the full Veterans Affairs Committee, said he still does not trust OAWP to protect whistleblowers.
“This is incredulous to me and frankly I don't have confidence in this office,” Takano said. “If I'm approached by a whistleblower in my district, I cannot in good faith direct them to work with your office.” He added that is “not going to change until I see some real progress.”
Bonzanto acknowledged OAWP must work to regain the trust of whistleblowers, but repeatedly stressed she has implemented key changes to fix some of the office’s most serious issues. Among the changes she noted were building improved information systems that limit access to only certain employees and create a better audit trail, providing updates to whistleblowers on their cases every 14 days, eliminating work outside the office’s scope, improving training, hiring more investigators and changing the leadership structure. Bonzanto now personally approves all proposed disciplinary actions.
“As I assessed OAWP operations, I came to the realization that most of these concerns were valid,” she said. “By April 2019, I identified several deficiencies that are now highlighted in an OIG report, which needed to be corrected.” She highlighted the importance of “ensuring that the information provided by [VA whistleblowers] is not used without their consent or as otherwise permitted by law.”
When pressed by lawmakers, Bonzanto conceded OAWP “still has a lot of work to do.”
Missal, the IG, said that work includes filling leadership vacancies and issuing standard operating procedures. Without top deputies, he explained, Bonzanto’s reforms will never get implemented.
The assistant secretary is “trying to make change, but it is going to take some time to go through,” Missal said. He added, “Some of the planned actions lacked sufficient clarity or specific steps to ensure corrective actions will adequately address the recommendations.”
Missal also cautioned that his office’s hotline had received information indicating “that some individuals continue to harbor a fear of OAWP retaliation or disciplinary action for reporting suspected wrongdoing.”
The concern over OAWP was bipartisan. Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Mich., urged his colleagues not to “dwell in the past,” but castigated VA for its previous “cynical leadership” that “failed to establish safeguards to protect whistleblowers from retaliation.” Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., said the change at OAWP was not happening fast enough.
“I understand you’re trying to fix it but we’re a long time into it," Bost said. "We need to know you're doing everything you can as fast as you can. Now we want it right, but we want it very quickly. That’s the concern we are dealing with here."