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Inside Trump’s new VA office, early moves to help whistleblowers draw praise

President Donald Trump speaks at a podium. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)
January 17, 2018

Dan Martin is chief engineer for Veterans Affairs hospitals in northern Indiana, but he hasn’t done much engineering for almost a year — or much of anything for that matter.

After he reported concerns about possible contracting improprieties at the hospitals, managers stripped him of his duties last March, alleging he had been mean and used inappropriate language with his employees. They isolated him in an out-of the-way office in Marion, Ind., his lawyers say, and in December, moved to fire him.

Such stories have been legendary for years at the VA, but since President Trump created a whistleblower-protection office at the agency by executive order in April, the office has stepped in to help Martin and more than 70 other VA employees by delaying discipline against them until further investigation can be conducted.

It’s unclear what the end results will be — the director of the office, Peter O’Rourke, told USA TODAY in an exclusive interview that 41 of those cases remain open and a “very small number” of the others were decided in favor of the employees.

The office, which has operated largely in secret until now, had a rocky start and still faces staffing challenges and deep skepticism among some whistleblowers that it will succeed in the long run.

But the early moves to help them are nonetheless drawing praise from longtime advocates who say they are unprecedented.

“There’s no agency in the executive (branch) that’s come close to providing temporary relief for over 70 people in less than a year,” said Tom Devine, who is legal director at the nonprofit Government Accountability Project and has worked on federal whistleblower cases since 1979.

Devine, whose group is representing Martin and a handful of other alleged whistleblowers at the VA, said if only a fraction of cases are decided in the employees’ favor, it would represent an improvement. He said whistleblowers historically get relief in only 2% to 5% of cases.

Since June, the VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection has fielded more than 1,000 complaints about operations at the VA, according to statistics compiled by the office.

They included roughly 300 alleging employees had violated rules or laws, abused their authority or were engaged in mismanagement. In 28 other cases, the office determined they involved threats to public health or safety. A total of 232 complaints alleged retaliation against whistleblowers for speaking out about problems.

O’Rourke, a member of Trump’s transition team who landed at the VA as part of his administration’s beachhead team at the agency, said he designed the office to take quick, decisive action on complaints and track them until they are resolved.

They are triaged, investigated, and if founded, shared with all levels of the agency, from headquarters in Washington to regional and local officials in the field.

“In the past, people make a complaint, who knows who saw it? Maybe the medical center saw it, maybe they didn’t, maybe my supervisor never sent it anywhere,” said O’Rourke, a Navy veteran and former business consultant. “The process we have now, that disclosure now gets visibility… so these things cannot be hidden.”

He said the identities of employees reporting wrongdoing are kept secret unless the employees give permission to reveal them. In cases of retaliation, he said that permission may be necessary to fully vet the complaints.

The office has faced some challenges that have drawn sharp criticism and fueled skepticism that it will be different from previous initiatives that failed to fix problems at the agency and protect whistleblowers.

The office inherited a number of employees and cases from the now-defunct VA Office of Accountability Review, an Obama-era effort that targeted senior leaders for discipline but that some whistleblowers viewed as ineffective.

That meant some complainants received emails about their cases from an investigator at the Obama-era office one month and then from the same investigator at the new Trump whistleblower office a few weeks later, sowing doubt that it was a new office at all.

O’Rourke also interviewed a prominent whistleblower, Katherine Mitchell, a physician who has testified before Congress about threats to patient care at the Phoenix VA and is well-connected to dozens of VA whistleblowers. She said he offered her a position at the new office in August but then reversed himself in a two-sentence email in October and hasn’t responded since.

Mitchell also hasn’t seen any progress on a case she filed with the office alleging she is still suffering retaliation because the agency has not allowed her to perform duties related to specialty care contained her job description. She is now working in a regional office performing unrelated tasks, including reviewing and distributing policies from headquarters.

“As far as I can tell, they’re not doing anything substantially beneficial for anyone,” Mitchell told USA TODAY. “I’ve not heard anybody say that the office of whistleblower protection has helped them at all.”

Those sentiments were echoed by others, including Shea Wilkes, a social worker who exposed problems with wait lists at the VA in Shreveport, La., and co-founder of a national group of whistleblowers, VA Truth Tellers.

“Most of us are trying to figure out what exactly the Office of Accountability & Whistleblower Protection does,” Wilkes said in an email.

To some degree, that’s because the office has operated in virtual secret. O’Rourke has never participated in a media interview before, the number of whistleblowers the office has helped was not public, nor was Martin’s or other cases.

The VA says it is still working on Mitchell’s case, trying to match her with a position that meets her needs. The agency contends she wasn’t officially offered a job with the new whistleblower office, and she turned down an offer in October to work in a VA ethics office.

O’Rourke concedes not everything has been smooth sailing. The office is still staffing up. Currently, it has only 65 of the roughly 100 employees expected. And he said many of the complaints received so far have not been fully vetted or addressed.

“We’re kind of building the airplane as we fly it, is the analogy that’s been used quite a bit,” O’Rourke said.

One of the most high-profile moves he made was hiring a different whistleblower from the Phoenix VA, Brandon Coleman, and tasking him with outreach.

Coleman, who suffered retaliation in Phoenix after he disclosed poor treatment of suicidal veterans, started work at the office in August and said he has seen first-hand the progress it has made, both in uncovering problems with veteran care and in forestalling disciplinary actions against whistleblowers.

“I was here when we did one of our first holds, and it brought a tear to my eye because that didn’t exist when I was going through my stuff,” Coleman said in an interview.

O’Rourke said Coleman provides valuable insight on cases and policies from a whistleblower’s perspective.

“I thought it was just a no brainer to have a subject-matter expert on the field that I’m supposedly managing be able to tell me when I’m full of crap or not,” he said. “There’s not much that we do that he doesn’t at least get to have an opinion about.”

For many in the whistleblower community, though, it’s too soon to tell if the office will be a success.

Representatives of the Office of Special Counsel, which has been working regularly with the office on whistleblower cases, and the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit that works with whistleblowers, both said they are reserving judgment.

“The jury’s still out on the office,” said Nick Schwellenbach, director of investigations at POGO. “…I have heard almost nothing about what it’s concretely doing to protect whistleblowers, making the VA a culture where employees feel comfortable raising concerns, and improving the quality of VA healthcare.”


© 2018 USA Today

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