A Veterans Affairs Department employee who was fired for contacting his senator to report problems at the department is back on the job this week after a two-year legal fight that ended with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel chastising VA officials.
The news comes amid continued criticism from lawmakers about VA's treatment of whistleblowers and commitment to fixing internal problems instead of covering them up.
OSC officials said they hope the case will serve as a warning to VA leaders and staffers to take such reports more seriously, and to follow the law.
"The constitutional right to petition Congress must be guaranteed for all Americans," Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said in a statement. "Federal agencies cannot deny their employees this right even if it leads to scrutiny of their operations."
In February 2013, disabled Army veteran Bradie Frink was hired as a clerk at the VA's Baltimore Regional Office. Since he had a pending benefits claim at that facility, officials opted to transfer the file to a different office for processing to avoid any potential conflict of interest.
But OSC officials said his benefits folder got lost in transit, delaying his already year-old claim. After a few months of waiting, he asked co-workers and outside advocates to help find the missing documents, without success.
In June 2013, Frink reached out to Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., about his missing files. Days later, her staffers contacted VA officials about his case. Before the end of the month, Frink was fired for "failing to follow supervisory instructions, including using inappropriate methods to search for his claims folder."
OSC investigators called the reasons for the firing flimsy and found cases of more serious workplace violations that yielded much less severe punishment. They recommended punishment against two Baltimore VA supervisors for the move.
Shortly after VA Secretary Bob McDonald took over that leadership post in August 2014, he promised new protections for whistleblowers and punishment for individuals who retaliated against them.
OSC officials said that in recent months, VA supervisors have worked with their office to resolve Frink's case, including back pay for the months of unemployment, compensatory damages for emotional distress, and reinstatement in his job.
In a statement, VA officials said they are building a stronger relationship with the Office of Special Counsel to meet those goals.
"Intimidation or retaliation, not just against whistleblowers but against any employee who raises a hand to identify a problem … is absolutely unacceptable," officials said in a statement.
Frink's file was found a few weeks after Mikulski's office intervened. His claim was processed later that year.
VA officials did not say whether they have taken any disciplinary action against the supervisors.