A key House committee is investigating a complaint that the Department of Veterans Affairs is spying on whistleblowers by diverting their emails to the secretary's office in Washington, D.C.
And while the VA denies the charge, several whistleblowers backed up that complaint in interviews with the Washington Examiner this week.
The House Veterans' Affairs Committee has received a complaint from an anonymous VA whistleblower who had trouble sending a work email to her personal email, after which an IT worker told her the VA was blocking certain email functions. A further investigation revealed a list of other VA employees with similar restrictions, which appears to include known VA whistleblowers from around the country.
The list of names was titled "Sec Divert Internal," and the anonymous whistleblower told the Examiner that the IT worker believes emails from those workers are being sent to the VA secretary's office in Washington, D.C.
A screenshot made available to the Examiner shows a list of names that includes Scott Davis, a VA whistleblower out of Atlanta who has testified about VA incompetence and has given several TV interviews:
When contacted by the Examiner, Davis said he's had email problems for some time at the VA. He said he also thinks the "Sec Divert Internal" code means his emails and those from other whistleblowers are being closely watched, despite claims from the VA that they are supporting whistleblower complaints about corruption at the beleaguered department.
"I think it's a shame they're monitoring whistleblowers," he said.
The VA acknowledged to the Examiner on Wednesday that some emails are being flagged and diverted to Washington. But a VA spokesperson said headquarters isn't spying on whistleblowers, and is instead trying to route their complaints more quickly to senior officials.
"As part of the Secretary's commitment to changing the culture of VA to provide better customer service to Veterans and to empower employees, because it is their work that makes VA better for our veterans, certain emails received by the secretary and deputy are immediately forwarded to VA's client relations team for priority review and quick action," the spokesperson said.
The VA also said the list had been called "divert" up until last September, after which it was changed to "priority." The spokesperson said the "divert" code name was "potentially confusing and misleading."
But whistleblowers told the Examiner that the VA's explanation doesn't ring true, and Davis said outright it was "horse s--t."
"It's clear in my estimation that none of this had anything to do with helping whistleblowers," he said. "I would argue it had the exact opposite intent, which is retaliating."
Davis cited two main reasons for his skepticism. First, he said it doesn't seem plausible that whistleblower complaints have been given priority at the scandal-ridden VA, in large part because very little has improved there.
Over the last two years, whistleblowers have complained about everything from disregard for veterans to the inability to fire corrupt officials.
To back up his assertion that nothing has improved, Davis noted that he has emailed VA Secretary Bob McDonald directly dozens of times with complaints. He tagged those emails in such a way that he will get an email reply back once they are read.
But Davis says many of his emails are never read, and provided pictures of the email notifications he gets confirming that they aren't being read at all:
Secondly, Davis said that in his experience, senior officials in Washington receive his emails, and report back to his superiors in Atlanta. He said in practice, the "divert" list is a way for the VA to keep tabs on whistleblowers and retaliate against them.
"The divert list is a hit list," he said.
Davis also noted that Debi Bevins, staff director for the office of the secretary in Washington, routinely gets copies of all his emails. He said Bevins reports back to his superiors in Atlanta, and he provided a screenshot to prove it, in which she says his emails are "diverted to me."
The VA's explanation also doesn't address complaints that some email functions are closed to these whistleblower employees.
But when pressed on these questions, the VA declined to respond to the Examiner in more detail.
A third whistleblower on the list who spoke with the Examiner said he's been routinely harassed by senior VA officials, and blocked from meeting with members of Congress seeking information about VA mismanagement. He said the VA closely watches for interaction between employees and members of Congress, and said after a recent meeting he finally had with members, he was put on leave without pay.
This whistleblower added that it's disturbing to be on a special list of emails that appear to be going to VA headquarters in Washington, and said that seems to go directly against the VA's pledge not to harass or intimidate whistleblowers. And while the VA says it's trying to help, this whistleblower said he takes no comfort in that.
"Should I be flattered or creeped out?" this whistleblower said in an interview. "Are they spying on my work email, or keeping me from reporting abuses to Secretary McDonald?"