Department of Veterans Affairs officials oppose a law that would protect whistleblowers by ensuring that managers don't retaliate against them for exposing mismanagement and fraud, either internally to other agency employees or externally to Congress, the media or the public.
Secretary Robert McDonald has said that he won't tolerate retaliation against whistleblowers that has too often characterized the department's response to repeated revelations in recent years to instances of official wrongdoing.
But when the House Committee on Veterans Affairs drafted a bill to enable employees to report issues to their bosses, and then to their bosses' superiors if necessary, Meghan Flanz, director of the department's Office of Accountability Review, said that the new protections weren't necessary or workable, and claimed the current system works well as it is.
"We believe the specific whistleblower disclosure and protection procedures provided by this bill would be unworkable. We also believe they are duplicative of the long-standing system of [Office of Special Counsel] authorities, remedies and programs specifically created to address claims of improper retaliation in the workplace. We believe these current whistleblower protections are effective," she told the committee.
The department is unwilling to impose penalties on supervisors, in part because if managers who engaged in cover-ups had to personally pay for remediation costs, it could become impossible to find people willing to accept the high-level jobs, which can pay as much as $170,000 annually, she said.
The bill — the Veterans Affairs Retaliation Prevention Act of 2015 — would "impose specific penalties on supervisors found to have engaged in retaliation and would significantly limit the time those supervisors have to defend themselves against the imposition of those penalties. The bill would also require Veterans Affairs supervisors to reimburse the government for the costs associated with retaliation," she said.
This would "leave supervisors too fearful about the possible penalties for retaliation to effectively manage their employees," Flanz said.
The bill would require managers found to have retaliated against whistleblowers to be suspended for at least 14 days on the first offense, and fired on the second. It would also limit their appeal rights and prevent them from getting a bonus during the year they retaliated.
Managers would have to let employees know what action was being taken to address the complaint, if any. They would initially have two days to assess whether "there is a reasonable likelihood that a complaint discloses a violation of any law, rule, or regulation, or gross mismanagement, gross waste of funds, abuse of authority, or substantial and specific and danger to public health and safety," and therefore should be looked into as a potentially valid tip.
Flanz said that was far too short.
Sharon Helman, head of the widely publicized Phoenix hospital where managers manipulated the books to hide the fact that veterans had waited a long time for care — in many cases dying before they received it — received a $9,000 bonus for 2013.
The department said it had rescinded it, but the Washington Examiner found that it was later returned to her following an order by an administrative law judge.
She appealed her firing, and was ultimately fired only for an unrelated reason. Others involved in the scandal have been on paid leave for nearly a year.
Managers known to have been engaged in wrongdoing have frequently been transferred and even promoted rather than fired.
At a Veterans Affairs hospital in Puerto Rico, the director was arrested with painkillers for which he did not have a prescription, and when an employee informed officials in Washington of the arrest, the department attempted to fire the employee. When an investigator refused to write a report recommending his firing, it fired the investigator instead. No disciplinary actions are being taken regarding the director, DeWayne Hamlin.
Low-level workers at the same facility have been fired for minor reasons, while that same hospital knowingly employs a convicted sex offender as a human resources manager whose duties include firing employees.