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Friday, October 25, 2019

VA Whistlblower Office Floundered

From the VA Inspector General:
The VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP) was established in 2017 to improve VA’s ability to hold employees accountable and enhance protections for whistleblowers.1 This goal was to be accomplished, in part, by expanding VA’s ability to hold senior executives accountable for specified misconduct; preventing retaliation against whistleblowers and initiating action against supervisors who retaliate; and addressing senior executives’ poor performance.
Notably, 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 operations 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. Those leadership failures distracted the OAWP from its core mission and likely diminished the desired confidence of whistleblowers and other potential complainants in the operations of the office.
From June 2017 to May 2018, the OAWP referred 2,526 submissions to other VA program offices, facilities, or other components that were not all equipped to undertake such investigations and without adequate measures to track the referrals or safeguards to protect whistleblowers’ identities.7 Of these, at least 51 involved allegations of whistleblower retaliation by a supervisor (and so properly within the investigative authority of the OAWP). Complainants were not always advised of these referrals. Without guidance, OAWP personnel did not take sufficient steps to protect complainants’ identities and prevent their concerns from being sent to the very facilities or network offices where the complainant worked or that were the subject of the allegations. The OAWP also failed to establish safeguards sufficient to protect whistleblowers from becoming the subject of retaliatory investigations. One troubling instance involved the OAWP initiating an investigation that could itself be considered retaliatory. 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 the senior leader. After a truncated investigation, the OAWP substantiated the allegations without even interviewing the whistleblower. In addition, former OAWP leaders made comments and took actions that reflected a lack of respect for individuals they deemed “career” whistleblowers. Moreover, at a time when the office was failing to meet its statutory requirements and purposes, then Executive Director Nicholas directed about 15 percent of the OAWP’s FY 2018 budget to be obligated for contracts beyond its core mission.