Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) bosses fired an employee for reporting a hospital lost 30 of its 88 vehicles and official credit cards intended for the fleet had been misused.
Robert Benkeser, manager at the Greater Los Angeles VA, fired whistle-blower Anthony Salazar after Salazar tried to bring the theft to light. The department convened an “administrative investigation board” (AIB) that resulted in “a letter of counseling” to Benkeser for mismanaging the motor pool. Benkeser then fired Salazar several months later.
The Office of Special Counsel (OSC), a government-wide agency that protects whistle-blowers, said earlier this month that VA blocked Salazar from showing that he was being retaliated against. The Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) imposed “an overly rigorous” standard of proof to show prohibited retaliation.
Rep. Mike Coffman, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, demanded Aug. 18 to know what happened to the missing vehicles, how the AIB worked, and the position top VA management took before the MSPB in the matter of Salazar’s job.
The VA’s attempts to conduct internal self-investigations and impose discipline routinely appear to be kangaroo courts. For example, Deborah Amdur was put in charge of disciplining the head of the Tomah, Wisc., hospital for serious misconduct, while the VA already had reason to believe that Amdur herself was engaged in similarly dangerous dishonesty.
When a new VA hospital in Aurora, Colo., went $1 billion over budget and officials couldn’t explain why, the department appointed an AIB to get to the bottom of it. But the AIB’s members didn’t include a single person with construction knowledge, making it all but impossible to come up with meaningful results.
Benseker is an engineering manager who is paid more than $141,000 a year, while Salazar made half that as a driver.
“On Oct. 24, 2013, Mr. Salazar sent another email to Mr. Benkeser and his second-level supervisor, the Assistant Director for Administration and Facilities, about the continued problems with agency vehicle and fleet card usage.
“Mr. Salazar described how 30 of the 88 agency vehicles were unaccounted for, explained how ten fleet cards were suspected of fraudulent purchases, and pressed the urgent need for the VA to get the situation under control,” OSC wrote.
Salazar was fired Feb. 4, 2015. The ease with which Salazar was fired — he was put on a “performance improvement plan,” told he didn’t meet the goals, then let go — stands in contrast to the many employees who unambiguously committed egregious misconduct and are still on the job.
For example, two felons work in management at the San Juan VA hospital, and a worker in the security office came to work each day with a GPS monitor because she had taken part in an armed robbery, which a spokesman said was irrelevant since it occurred off-duty. At another VA hospital, a nurse’s aide remains on the payroll as he awaits a manslaughter trial in the beating death of a patient.
Federal managers claim they can’t fire such employees because of civil service employee union rules, but critics claim government bosses’ pursuit of dismissals too often are halfhearted.
Punishing people who call attention to problems, instead of those who cause problems, has become such a pronounced pattern at the VA that leaders have made a concerted effort to show that they are turning the ship around.
But since they’ve been projecting that message, the drumbeat of incidents has continued, and it has even paid six-figure awards to managers that it knew to have engaged in whistle-blower retaliation.
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