Memphis VA Medical Center management has retaliated against two whistle-blowers responsible for a series of exposés in The Daily Caller — despite assurances from the new VA secretary that whistle-blowers are protected against reprisal.
“The Memphis Veterans Affairs Medical Center fully supports the Whistleblower Protection Act and does not engage in retaliatory actions,” said Willie Logan, the communications officer for the Memphis VA Medical Center.
But Sean Higgins and Charlie Williams both told TheDC that hospital authorities have found ways to target them.
Higgins was employed by the Memphis VA Medical Center until recently, and Williams continues to be employed by the facility.
Both previously asked to remain anonymous for a series of Daily Caller exposés, but have gone public after they say they have faced retaliation for cooperating with TheDC and other media.
Higgins told TheDC that in April 2014, he made a complaint first to the Joint Commission on Hospital Accreditation (JCOHA) and then anonymously to local media that a number of dialysis machines weren’t being cleaned properly.
The employee responsible for cleaning the machines was using 20 cubic centimeters of cleaning fluid when they were supposed to be using 20 gallons.
“That’s like using a tea spoon of cleaner when you’re supposed to use a bucket,” said Higgins.
Five days after a surprise inspection by JCOHA, Higgins said the medical center human resources department told him he’d be the subject of an administrative investigative board for an unspecified complaint over creating a hostile work environment.
“Two and a half years ago I made a hostile work environment complaint, but they never investigated that and they left me working in that environment the entire time,” said Higgins, charging that the difference between the way the complaints were treated as proof the complaint against him was retaliatory.
Higgins said he’s been blowing the whistle on corruption at the facility since shortly after he began working there in 2007.
Higgins originally tipped off TheDC in June that the Memphis VA Medical Center closed down a therapy pool purportedly due to a lack of funds — months after approving $1 million in bonuses.
Williams told TheDC that over the last two weeks, he’s been the subject of a series of dubious complaints — all since he was spotted speaking with Higgins while both waited to meet new VA Secretary Robert McDonald during an Aug. 12 visit.
“They [hospital management] put two and two together,” said Williams to TheDC, referring to his belief that hospital management presumed he was the original source of photos used in the two stories after he was spotted with Higgins.
Though he tried to remain anonymous, Higgins believes it was an open secret that he was the source of most of the negative stories about the hospital leaked to the media.
Williams is one of four people who work in the room where the backlogs occurred.
Williams, a veteran of the Iraq War who suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), said his boss, Rebecca England, claimed he was absent without leave after he took time off for treatment about six months ago.
Williams told TheDC that not only did he have the time off approved, but England wasn’t even his supervisor when he was off work. His supervisor at that time never questioned his absence, Williams added.
Williams initially reported the backlog in March 2014 in an Office of Special Counsel complaint, and described retaliation from the employee responsible, which he told TheDC exacerbated his PTSD.
Last week, England sent him an email suggesting he’d be under investigation.
“I was in the area at 300 [3 p.m.] as I was pulling inpatient documents for a report for QM [Quality Management] from the documents you had previously scanned,” England wrote in an email to Williams on Aug. 19. “We will schedule a fact finding session upon my return.”
Williams told TheDC that the employees who were responsible for the two backlogs — Carnell Clark and Brenda Rodgers — weren’t held accountable, and that Clark was even chosen for overtime to help catch up the backlog.
Higgins said he was terminated on Aug. 8 not for creating a hostile work environment, but because he’d made a racial statement in a meeting some months earlier when he complained about a broken air conditioner.
“You didn’t care when it was a bunch of black people working here — only when white people began working here,” Higgins, who is black, recalls himself saying.
A “hostile work” environment is a legal term that has to meet numerous requirements, but one government agency describes a hostile work environment as “a form of harassment” that “is demonstrated by such severe and pervasive conduct that permeates the work environment and interferes with an employee’s ability to perform his or her job.”
On Aug. 12, Higgins and a small group of veterans had a private meeting with VA Secretary Robert McDonald, during which he explained how he was retaliated against.
“I don’t think they can do that,” Higgins recalled McDonald telling him.
“If you really want to affect change,” Higgins told McDonald in that meeting. “You need to fire everyone from the director [C. Diane Knight] to the front line managers.”
Higgins brought with him veterans Robert Jackson and Jesse Blakely to the meeting. Both Jackson and Blakely were featured in previous Daily Caller reports on the facility.
Higgins also brought with him Bernard Hughes. (RELATED: Hughes’ Father A Korean, Vietnam War Vet Inside VA System Held Against His Will)
Williams told TheDC that even though overtime was approved, Secretary McDonald found the same backlog inside England’s office — where photos couldn’t be taken — when he visited the facility.
Meagan Lutz, a press secretary with the VA in Washington D.C., declined to comment for this story.
Whistle-blower retaliation was a major source of concern after the VA scandal broke. Oliver Mitchell, who helped TheDC expose a secret list at the Los Angeles VA, was fired in 2011, shortly after he took his concerns to the Office of Special Counsel.
But McDonald said he’d usher in a new era where whistle-blower complaints are treated with respect.
“There are no bad whistle-blowers,” McDonald recently stated when he visited a VA facility in Palo Alto, Calif.