By Lightspring /

Office Created to Protect Whistleblowers and Discipline Senior Execs Is Doing Little of Either

Trump has praised the office, but a new internal report shows it has recommended discipline in just 0.2% of cases.

An office in the Veterans Affairs Department that President Trump created to boost disciplinary actions for senior executives and protections for whistleblowers has done little of either, according to a report the office released this week. 

VA’s Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection recommended punishments in just seven cases between Oct. 1, 2018, and May 31, 2020, representing 0.2% of the total complaints it received, the office said in a mandatory report to Congress. The unit sent about 700 cases involving allegations of waste, fraud or abuse to other offices in VA, while it dismissed altogether or otherwise referred out about 2,400. The office took on 389 cases to investigate itself, leading to the seven recommendations for discipline. 

Of those, six led to disciplinary recommendations for senior executives deemed to have been involved in misconduct or poor performance and just one was for supervisory whistleblower retaliation. The unit received and investigated a total of 179 complaints alleging such reprisal. The recommended punishment in the one case in which the office found wrongdoing was never enforced because the employee had already left VA. The Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection noted its investigations led to the demotion of a medical center chief of staff who failed to separate an employee from an alleged harasser and the firing of two Senior Executive Service employees for discrimination. 

The one finding of whistleblower retaliation by the office stemmed from a possible population of 40,000 supervisors within its purview. 

Christina Noel, a VA spokeswoman, said the report demonstrated improvements at the department, while also noting VA has fired 11,000 employees since Trump took office.

"This report proves that the vast majority of VA’s senior leaders are doing the right thing each and every day on behalf of veterans," Noel said. 

The office, which was codified into law by the 2017 VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, has faced criticism almost since its inception. Government Executive first reported in April 2019 on allegations that OAWP was itself retaliating against whistleblowers, which were later substantiated in an inspector general report that found the office aided in reprisal, sparked confusion throughout the department and failed to carry out its mandate to discipline top executives. OAWP cleaned house among its top leadership and its new head, Assistant Secretary Tammy Bonzanto, said at a congressional hearing on the office’s failures she had to pause any effort to recommend discipline for potential wrongdoing as she examined ways to improve in investigative practices. 

In the new report, Bonzanto said she has rectified the office's issues through a series of changes including standardizing investigative practices, improving communications with claimants and stakeholders and instituting widespread whistleblower training. The office has set a goal of completing each investigation within 120 days and cut its backlog from 572 cases to 205. It has also reexamined all cases investigated during previous leadership to ensure proper practices were followed. 

While Bonzanto and VA said OAWP is now on the right course, an investigation earlier this year from the Project on Government Oversight found through conversations with 20 current and former employees the internal problems were persistent and the office’s employees operate within a culture of fear. Employees were retaliated against for cooperating with the IG’s investigation and flagging potential excessive spending, they said. 

Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H., chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee panel on Oversight and Investigations, said at the time the office still had a long way to go to fulfill its mission. 

“They have significant work ahead to turn the office around, address the culture of retaliation that exists at the VA, and show Congress and whistleblowers that OAWP can be effective,” Pappas said.

This story has been updated with additional comment