VA whistle­blow­ers tell of ret­ri­bu­tion

See ‘vendetta,’ not change

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY DAVE BOYER

A whistle­blower in the Philadel­phia Vet­er­ans Af­fairs of­fice has been placed on un­paid leave less than one week af­ter he and other VA work­ers met pri­vately with Repub­li­can law­mak­ers in­ves­ti­gat­ing com­plaints about the be­lea­guered agency, rais­ing fresh con­cerns about em­ployee in­tim­i­da­tion at the depart­ment.

The VA em­ployee, a dis­abled vet­eran, was in­formed by man­age­ment of his un­paid sta­tus shortly af­ter his meet­ing April 2 with Reps. Pa­trick Mee­han and Ryan A. Costello, Penn­syl­va­nia Repub­li­cans and mem­bers of the House Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, The Wash­ing­ton Times has learned.

The vet­eran said Wed­nes­day that he also been told that man­age­ment ac­cuses him of poor per­for­mance and in­tends to dis­miss him from his job within 90 days.

“You can imag­ine the chill­ing ef­fect this is hav­ing on whistle­blow­ers com­ing for­ward in that of­fice,” said the vet­eran, who asked not to be iden­ti­fied.

He said the ac­tion against him is part of an or­ches­trated “vendetta” against VA em­ploy­ees who have talked to the me­dia about chronic ser­vice prob­lems in the Philadel­phia re­gional of­fice, one of the na­tion’s largest, han­dling benefits for more than 800,000 vet­er­ans in three states.

The VA had no com­ment on the em­ployee’s job sta­tus or ac­cu­sa­tions of in­tim­i­da­tion.

VA Sec­re­tary Robert McDon­ald, who took over in July amid a scan­dal over de­layed care and phony wait­ing lists at VA hos­pi­tals, has pledged to stop the agency’s pat­tern of pun­ish­ing whistle­blow­ers. He said the VA in­stead should be en­cour­ag­ing em­ploy­ees to come for­ward when they know of wrong­do­ing.

But the Of­fice of Spe­cial Coun­sel, an in­de­pen­dent agency that in­ves­ti­gates whistle­blower claims, has found sus­tained ex­am­ples of ret­ri­bu­tion against VA whistle­blow­ers.

From April to De­cem­ber last year, the of­fice took cor­rec­tive ac­tion on be­half of 25 VA whistle­blow­ers. It also has been in­ves­ti­gat­ing dozens of other cases.

The scan­dal started last year in the Phoenix VA, but the Philadel­phia of­fice has emerged as one of the agency’s most trou­bled. The VA in­spec­tor gen­eral is­sued 35 rec­om­men­da­tions last month to fix prob­lems in Philadel­phia, in­clud­ing unan­nounced checks of the mail­room and re­fresher cour­ses for su­per­vi­sors on how to dis­pose of doc­u­ments prop­erly.

The in­spec­tor gen­eral urged the of­fice to take im­me­di­ate ac­tion to stop any im­proper pay­ments to vet­er­ans and to pre­vent im­proper dis­posal of records, mis­han­dling of re­turned mail and fraud­u­lent use of date stamps on claims doc­u­ments.

The in­spec­tor gen­eral also has launched an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the re­lo­ca­tion pay­ment of $288,000 last year to Philadel­phia VA Direc­tor Diana Rubens — about $275,000 more than the av­er­age re­lo­ca­tion ex­pense paid by the agency in 2011. The VA said most of the pay­ment was made un­der the agency’s ap­praised value of­fer pro­gram, which helps em­ploy­ees sell their homes quickly when they are be­ing trans­ferred.

Ms. Rubens sold her home in Alexan­dria, Vir­ginia, last year to a VA con­trac­tor, Stone Fi­nanc­ing LLC, for $770,000, although it had been ap­praised at $665,000. Seven months later, Stone Fi­nanc­ing sold the house for $667,000, ac­cord­ing to prop­erty records.

An of­fi­cial with Stone Fi­nanc­ing didn’t re­turn re­quests for com­ment on why the con­trac­tor took a six-fig­ure loss on Ms. Rubens’ house.

Amid such ques­tions, Mr. Mee­han and Mr. Costello vis­ited the Philadel­phia VA of­fice last week to meet with Ms. Rubens and talk with whistle­blow­ers.

The law­mak­ers met with a group of whistle­blow­ers in a small con­fer­ence room and “re­as­sured them that they would be pro­vided pro­tec­tion,” they said later in a joint state­ment.

But em­ploy­ees who at­tended the meet­ing said sev­eral VA man­agers were seen “hov­er­ing” in a hall­way out­side the con­fer­ence room in what the whistle­blow­ers said was an ap­par­ent at­tempt to iden­tify the em­ploy­ees.

The episode left one whistle­blower in tears. Col­leagues led the worker out of the room through a dif­fer­ent hall­way in or­der not to be spot­ted by the of­fice man­agers.

“Last July, Ms. Rubens filmed and recorded con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tors with­out their knowl­edge and/or con­sent, so that was a con­cern of all of us,” said the em­ployee who was placed on un­paid leave.

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