WASHINGTON—The Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, created in 2017 to make it safer for VA employees to come forward about problems they identify with the agency, actually has been doing the opposite of its stated purpose, according to a report from the VA’s Office of Inspector General.
According to the report, “In its first two years of operation, the OAWP acted in ways that were inconsistent with its statutory authority while it simultaneously floundered in its mission to protect whistleblowers. Even recognizing that organizing the operation of any new office is challenging, OAWP leaders made avoidable mistakes early in its development that created an office culture that was sometimes alienating to the very individuals it was meant to protect.”
The 91-page report details numerous systemic issues at the office that undercut its mission from the beginning. According to the report, OAWP excluded investigations of misconduct and poor performance that it should have taken on, while accepting matters that it should have declined, including investigating one of its own directors for allegations related to that person’s earlier position at another VA office.
In addition to misinterpreting its investigative mandate, the OAWP failed to refer matters to more appropriate agencies. For example, the report found that OAWP “investigated criminal matters involving possible felonies that it was required to refer to the OIG.”
OAWP also failed to create comprehensive written policies and procedures—something it was still lacking as of July 2019. The office also did not have a quality assurance process for identifying errors in its work, the report found.
OIG investigators noted that, when OAWP looked into claims, its investigators failed to go far enough in collecting evidence. “In many instances, they focused only on finding evidence sufficient to substantiate the allegations without attempting to find potentially exculpatory or contradictory evidence,” the report states. “One disciplinary official described OAWP investigations as ‘a [disciplinary] action in search of evidence.’”
This investigatory failure had a direct impact on the discipline handed down to VA employees. Disciplinary officials regularly mitigated OAWP recommendations, lessoning or dismissing suspensions and turning removals into demotions. One common reason cited by disciplinary officials for this mitigation was OAWP’s failure to seek out exculpatory evidence.
Most concerning was the report’s finding that OAWP failed to protect whistleblowers from retaliation. From June 2017 to May 2018, the OAWP referred 2,526 submissions to other VA programs or facilities, not all of which were equipped to undertake such investigations and without adequate measures to protect whistleblowers’ identities. Whistleblowers were also not always informed that their allegations might be passed on to other VA offices. The report includes testimony from OAWP officials who recall situations where a VISN receiving a referral from OAWP would direct the matter back to the facility that the whistleblower was requesting be investigated, which posed a clear conflict of interest.
While whistleblowers’ identities would be redacted when the case was referred outside OAWP, there was no guidance on exactly what other information was redacted or how to assess whether the redaction was sufficient to protect the person’s identity.
The OAWP also refused to investigate whistleblower retaliation unless the whistleblower consented to disclose their identity. That consent allowed OAWP to disclose their identity to other VA offices, putting it in conflict with OAWP’s obligation to maintain whistleblower confidentiality.
Not only did OAWP fail to establish sufficient standards to protect whistleblowers, the office itself initiated an investigation that could be seen as retaliatory, the report explains. “At the request of a senior leader who had social ties to the OAWP Executive Director, the OAWP investigated a whistleblower who had a complaint pending against a senior leader. After a truncated investigation, the OAWP substantiated the allegations without even interviewing the whistleblower.”
This OAWP hostility against whistleblowers extended to employees within its own office, according to the OIG. The report describes an instance shortly after the OAWP was established where a senior OAWP employee reported that a senior VA official was interfering in a disciplinary matter and was seeking to affect the outcome. The disclosure was made to then-OAWP Director Peter O’Rourke. According to the whistleblower, O’Rourke downgraded their responsibilities, attempted to block them from leaving the office for another job in VA, initiated an investigation and drafted a disciplinary proposal to remove the whistleblower from federal employment. The OAWP eventually rescinded its proposed removal action.
Testifying before the House VA Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Assistant VA Secretary Tamara Bonzanto, DNP RN, who now heads OAWP, admitted that, after taking over the office in January 2019, she found problems with the office similar to those described in the OIG report, as well as other inappropriate actions taken by previous OAWP leadership.
“In August 2019, I found out about a list of individuals that was sent to prior OAWP leadership,” she told legislators. “This list contained detailed information about allegations raised by individuals and OAWP staff’s opinions about the individuals and their allegations. According to OAWP staff, this list was requested by former OAWP leadership and was related to a whistleblower mentorship program, which I’ve now cancelled. Regardless of the intent, it was inappropriate to provide whistleblower information in such a list and provide opinions about individuals who raised allegations of wrong-doing.”
Bonzanto testified that OAWP is working to fix the problems by hiring more investigators, ensuring more oversight of OAWP recommendations, mandating that staff update whistleblowers on their claim status, and drafting policies and procedures.