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VA faces lawsuits for alleged retaliation

Jack C. Montgomery VA Medical Center (Eastern Oklahoma VA Health Care System/Facebook)

Two lawsuits filed in federal court outline what some describe as a “culture of retaliation” within Eastern Oklahoma VA Health Care System.

Jeri Goen, a former employee at Jack C. Montgomery VA Medical Center, alleges she was targeted for retaliation after filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity and prevailing in a wage discrimination case. Goen alleges in an amended complaint filed in the U.S. District Court of Northern Oklahoma that she endured “physical intimidation and verbal threats” while working in “a hostile workplace.”

Steve Goldsmith, a Vietnam-era veteran who joined the U.S. Marine Corps after being drafted in 1969 and transferred later to the U.S. Army, said he became the subject of retaliation after expressing dissatisfaction with mishandled travel claims. Goldsmith alleges in a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court of Eastern Oklahoma that he was tagged with a “behavioral flag” based on baseless allegations he proved to be false.

U.S. Department of Justice lawyers filed motions in both cases seeking orders to dismiss both lawsuits on technical grounds, challenging the plaintiffs on subject-matter jurisdiction and sovereign immunity. They also allege pleading deficiencies and plaintiffs’ failure to allege “claims upon which relief can be granted,” The government has yet to answer substantive allegations set forth in the complaints.

Communications Director Nita McClellan said EOVAHCS “cannot comment specifically on information relating to personal health records, personnel actions, administrative investigations, or legal actions that may or may not be pending or forthcoming.” She said allegations of “unlawful behavior from a VA employee” are taken “very seriously” and investigated “to the fullest extent possible.”

“VA offers a wide variety of reporting mechanisms to ensure that staff are protected from retaliation, harassment, discrimination and other forms of prohibited behaviors,” McClellan said. “We also provide resources for veterans, caregivers and patrons who feel that they have experienced or been exposed to unlawful behavior from a VA employee.”

Goldsmith said he knows veterans and employees at Muskogee VAMC who would be hesitant to report such conduct due to their fear of reprisal.

“Everybody’s afraid to speak,” Goldsmith said during a recent interview. “With all due respect, I’m not afraid of anybody — they threaten to take away your benefit.”

Goldsmith said the threat rings hollow for him because he receives benefits as a result of having a disease for which no cure exists. Unlike veterans whose benefits are related to a disability, Goldsmith said his VA benefits cannot be denied until there is a cure is found for Meniere’s Disease with vertigo.

There are veterans, Goldsmith said, with legitimate concerns who deserve to be heard but are less outspoken. He said many choose to “just keep quiet … because they’re afraid” and “they don’t want to make waves.” He said veterans deserve to be heard.

“They’re scared because they don’t want to lose their their benefits,” Goldsmith said. “They don’t want to lose their disability, and they’re afraid.”

The Tahlequah resident said while he feels more secure than veterans whose benefits are linked to a disability, he was unable to escape the “culture of retaliation” at Muskogee VAMC. Goldsmith said administrators made claims based on erroneous information that, according to documents he provided, was ordered removed after he proved a VA employee had fabricated a false narrative.

Goldsmith said the information fabricated by a former employee at a VA health care facility in Texas, which documents show was ordered removed from his record, was dredged up years later by Muskogee VAMC employees. He alleges the false information was used to impugn his character and “wrongfully place limitations on” his “access to VA healthcare facilities.”

Being subjected to those false accusations, Goldsmith said, exemplifies “culture of a retaliation” that exists at Muskogee VAMC.

“In the beginning it hurt — no, it was embarrassing,” Goldsmith said about the attempt to attack his character with false information. “I proved to them that I won the appeal and … even gave them copies of the documents that prove there is no evidence to support those claims.”

Goen alleges similar conduct in her complaint. She alleges administrators denied requests for workplace accommodations after filing a complaint of pay discrimination with EEOC, subjecting her to a “hostile and intimidating work environment” after winning a ruling in her favor.

Some employees have said the “culture of retaliation” alleged by Goen and Goldsmith exists but decline to speak publicly due to concerns about their jobs. One employee, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly, said those who speak publicly jeopardize opportunities for advancement and have been denied requests for leave.

Available resources

Nita McClellan, communications director at Eastern Oklahoma VA Health Care System, said veterans, their caregivers and VA patrons who believe they have been the target of a prohibited action or behavior by VA staff may contact the VA’s Office of Resolution Management External Complaints Program. Complaints may be submitted:

By phone: External Complaints Program at (888) 566-3982, Option 4.

By email: [email protected]

By mail: Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of Resolution Management, Civil Rights External Complaints Division, 1575 I St. NW, 10th Floor, Washington, DC 20005.

Online: External Complaints Program is available at www.va.gov/ORMDI/External_Complaints_Program.asp

McClellan said those who believes they have been subjected or witness to illegal behavior may contact the VA’s Office of the Investigator General.

By phone: (800) 488-8244 between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and Friday, or between 8 a.m. and noon on Thursday.

By mail: VA Inspector General Hotline (53H), 810 Vermont Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20420.

Online: https://www.va.gov/oig/hotline/complainant-release-preference.asp

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