A prolific Veteran Administration (VA) whistleblower is on the brink of homelessness and caught up in the vortex of government bureaucracy.
Sean Higgins is a former employee of the Memphis VA, who was credited with more than thirty disclosures of waste, fraud and abuse at the hospital in an article from May 2017. He’s disclosed approximately ten more incidents since then.
He’s largely responsible for landing the Memphis VA with the dubious distinction of being considered one of the four worst hospitals in the VA system, and thus requiring each of those hospitals to brief the secretary’s office weekly on their progress.
In June 2017, the Memphis VA terminated Higgins for the third time — he had both previous terminations overturned on appeal.
The date of his termination was noteworthy as the letter was written the day before the new VA bill which purported to protect whistleblowers was signed. Higgins was not informed until the next day, just as the bill was being signed.
“Higgins was removed in June of last year for disruptive behavior and use of profane language. He also had a history of similar behavior, resulting in at least two previous suspensions of 14 days and 3 days, respectively, so his firing for this pattern of misbehavior was more than warranted, and, frankly, way past due,” said Curt Cashour, public affairs officer at the VA.
While ostensibly Higgins was terminated for creating a hostile work environment — he was accused of swearing and yelling in meetings — many prominent VA whistle-blowers including Germaine Clarno at the Hines VA, Dale Klein at the Poplar VA, Jay DeNofrio at the Altoona VA, and Brandon Coleman, the Phoenix VA whistleblower, all immediately called it whistleblower retaliation.
Furthermore, soon after his termination, this reporter and others revealed that the Memphis VA slipped a bogus restraining order purportedly against Higgins, barring him from coming close to several other Memphis VA employees.
No such restraining order exists, and one was doctored and slipped into the file.
Furthermore, that was only after the Memphis VA tried and failed to get a restraining order; they then tried to erase all the records associated with the attempt.
Higgins said these acts were engineered by Bradley Flippin, a powerful VA lawyer involved in all three of his terminations.
“It’s personal,” Higgins said of Flippin.
These disclosures did not help Higgins expedite the process.
Even though an after-termination appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board is supposed to take no more than 120 days, Higgins case continues to languish, with no end in sight.
Part of the problem is that Higgins attorney, Joree Brownlow, had to withdraw in the middle due to medical reasons, but Higgins said this only exacerbated problems of the bureaucracy.
Higgins said that Flippin and the VA initially brought a frivolous motion, arguing that the MSPB was not the proper venue.
The VA had a letter attesting to MSPB being the proper venue, but the VA filed a motion which was demined but clogged up the docket in the meantime.
Furthermore, Higgins had already been suspended for fourteen-days for the same incidents and filed a separate MSPB case for that suspension.
His attorneys, because they are arguing its all part of the same retaliation scheme, asked that the cases be combined — which them being combined has also caused further delays.
Since October 2016, Higgins has also been trying to finalize a disability retirement package, which would allow him to retire with a federal pension.
But that process which is not supposed to last any more than a year also goes on seemingly without end.
Higgins suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder because of his constant whistleblowing, which led to harassment and retaliation.
Higgins said the process was initially slowed down because the VA kept sending it to the wrong department.
The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is the agency tasked with approving them, but they didn’t receive his file until March 2017.
Now, nearly a year later, no decision has been made, despite Higgins reaching out to Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker’s office and Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen’s office.
Corker’s public affairs officer Micah Johnson, issued this statement: “Our office has been in contact with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management regarding Mr. Higgins’s retirement disability request. We will continue to monitor the case and provide him updates as available.”
But nearly a year later, no one has been able to explain why the package has still not been approved.
An email to OPM’s media relations department was not returned.
Higgins said there is no excuse for the delay because the VA has stipulated to all issues. The VA has agreed with his PTSD diagnosis and they’ve said they can’t find work for him in an environment that is not hostile.
The Back Pay
Meanwhile, when employment was restored in 2016 after his second termination, the MSPB judge also ordered the VA to pay Higgins the back pay from the period he missed- a span of about a year and a quarter.
The VA initially made a payment which Higgins said was woefully short.
“That’s false. He is not owed any back pay,” said Cashour.
But Higgins and his then attorney Brownlow, appealed to the same MSPB judge who ruled in their favor.
Her ruling goes to the MSPB board, which is located in Washington D.C., but this board does not have a quorum, and hasn’t since Trump took over.
Without a quorum, explained Brownlow, the board in D.C. can’t make any rulings.
As a result, this case also languishes.
As recently as January 19, MSPB sent out a press release bemoaning the lack of quorum: “The most significant issue facing the Board is the lack of a quorum that began on January 8, 2017. The lack of a quorum prevents the Board from issuing decisions on petitions for review (PFRs) and other cases at headquarters, and from issuing reports of merit systems studies. It also prevents the Board from promulgating regulations in response to Congressional changes in our jurisdiction or processes.”
Flippin is also responsible for slowing this down.
When Brownlow attempted to negotiate with him in June 2017, he rejected the offer and cut off all negotiations.
“After careful consideration, the VA has decided to reject your demand. We do not have a counter offer at this time. I look forward to continuing to work with you on these and other matters,” Flippin said in a June 2017 email responding to a settlement offer.
With no negotiation, Brownlow was forced to go through the MSPB process.
Higgins said he has already received an eviction notice at his apartment, and he’ll lose his car on March 15, with no payment.
Correction: A prior version of this story wrote that TheDC did not receive a reply from Bartholomew Sullivan, public affairs officer for Rep. Cohen, but TheDC sent an email to the wrong address. The story has been corrected.