Lawmakers say they have lost confidence in the Veterans Affairs office founded to investigate whistleblower complaints and aren’t inclined to send cases there following a damning report about its operations by the department’s inspector general last week.
Members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee criticized the leader of the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection during a Tuesday afternoon hearing, citing multiple failures with the agency’s investigations and limited results from the office’s work over the last two years.
“If I’m approached by a whistleblower from my district, I cannot in good conscience direct them to work with your office,” said committee chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif. “And that’s not going to change until I see some real progress.”
The VA inspector general found widespread concerns with the two-year-old office, and multiple practices that would discourage employees from reporting wrongdoing.
Separately, six Democrats from the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee sent a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie lamenting “significant deficiencies” in the department’s whistleblower protection policies and demanding reforms in the accountability office.
“This is all the more surprising given the high level of publicity the administration has focused on (whistleblower protection) law and your stated commitment to protecting whistleblowers and ensuring accountability,” the note stated.
Last week, the VA inspector general offered a scathing assessment of the OAWP’s work thus far, accusing leadership of creating “an office culture that was sometimes alienating to those it was meant to protect.”
Among the most problematic findings were a lack of sufficient training for staff, an inconsistent approach to the office’s mission and responsibilities, and a refusal to investigate cases where whistleblowers wanted to remain anonymous.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Tamara Bonzanto, Assistant Secretary for Accountability and Whistleblower Protection at VA, said she has been working since her appointment six months ago to correct the office’s mistakes of the past. She said new training and oversight policies will be in place by the end of the year, and said a reorganization of the office should provide better results in months to come.
She also pushed back on Takano’s assessment that the office cannot be trusted to care for employees who want to report wrongdoing.
“If whistleblowers have a complaint, they should come to our office,” she told Military Times. “We’ve taken on a lot of major changes in the last few months. They should be confident coming to us.”
Accountability within VA’s employee ranks was a major talking point in President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. Under new firing authorities signed into law by Trump in early 2017, VA has dismissed more than 8,600 employees.
The fight over veterans policy bills is linked to the House's ongoing impeachment investigation.
But union officials and other outside advocates have complained that many of those firings are low-level employees, not senior managers more directly responsible for cultural problems within VA.
In June, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hosted another hearing on whistleblower problems within VA where several current employees complained they still face retaliation and unclear legal protections when they report problems with supervisors.
During Tuesday’s hearing, Republicans on the House committee were less critical than Takano but also expressed serious concerns that the office isn’t moving quickly enough to respond to lingering problems.
When pressed by those lawmakers if the OAWP has the “culture of accountability” needed to improve its operations, Bonzanto said she is confident it does. VA Inspector General Mike Missal testified that he isn’t as sure.
“We did not find that as we conducted our investigation,” he told lawmakers. “We’re going to take another look as we assess our implementation of our recommendations.”