More than half a decade after she publicly accused the Defense Department’s suicide prevention office of fraud and conflicts of interest, its former director has come out on top in a whistleblower retaliation case.
Jackie Garrick, a career social worker, civil servant and former Army officer, had been fighting for her federal retirement benefits after being removed from her job at DoD. On May 11, a judge with the Merit Systems Protection Board ruled that she had been subjected to a hostile work environment.
“This may be one small victory in a universe filled with pandemics, racism, and economic spiraling, but I hope it assures others that if you speak out, stick with it, you can win,” Garrick said in a June statement.
Garrick served in the Defense Suicide Prevention Office from 2011 to early 2015, when she left the job after raising concerns both within the department, and then publicly, about fraud, waste and abuse in the organization tasked with bringing down the military’s rising suicide rate.
She had reported a potential conflict of interest around a DoD official accused of funneling a contract to her former employer, a strategic communications firm, then replacing Garrick with the official’s mentee, after which several DSPO contracts were canceled or unfulfilled.
There were subsequent investigations by the DoD and Veterans Affairs inspectors general. The DoD IG found the employee in question did not direct a contract to a former employer or a friend and did not violate the applicable standard. The VA IG concluded its investigation with no action taken, according to decision letters provided to Military Times.
Garrick testified before Congress in 2013 that she had been attempting to straighten out the DSPO, after finding gaps and redundancies in its programs.
“The objective of this approach is to identify suicide prevention and resilience programs that align to strategic goals and areas where there are shortfalls or duplication of effort,” she told lawmakers. “This will result in potential savings by eliminating duplicative programs and generate fiscal efficacy by using those savings to cover identified gaps, or fund new evidence-based initiatives that leverages efforts to translate research.”
After her ouster, Garrick founded the non-profit Whistleblowers of America to advocate for others in her situation.
The criticism comes after a report last week describing the office as unfocused and potentially harmful for employees.
“The ruling clearly states that whistleblower retaliation and a hostile work environment existed within my work unit in the Department of Defense, which subverted the mission of the Defense Suicide Prevention Office,” she wrote in a post on WoA’s website after her ruling. “In my case, e-mails showed that senior career and political appointees undermined the DSPO mission by hindering me from appropriately funding, contracting, and leading effective programs to prevent suicide across the military.”
A 2019 Government Accountability Office found that DoD IG was slow to process whistleblower retaliation complaints, if it ran them down at all.
“My regret remains that DSPO activities that showed promise in saving lives were cancelled. Suicides were not prevented. Grift was not stopped,” Garrick wrote. “Officials I reported moved to other agencies and continued their wrongdoing and repeated retaliation. They will be applauded as leaders, since transparency and accountability are lacking — but in reality, as validated by the MSPB, they were complicit.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that, following investigations, neither DoD nor VA found cause to take action against the official Garrick accused of fraud.