Federal Agency Confirms Phoenix VA’s Retaliation Against Whistleblower

Larry Downing/Reuters

Michael Volpe Contributor
Font Size:

The Office of Special Counsel became the second federal agency to validate the evidence provided by a Phoenix VA whistleblower who says the hospital has been retaliating against him.

“The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital in Phoenix, Arizona continues to struggle with significant patient wait times, according to confirmed whistleblower disclosures. The whistleblower is Kuauhtemoc Rodriguez, chief of specialty care clinics at the Phoenix VA. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) sent the investigative findings to the White House and Congress today,” according to a press release from OSC.

In October 2016, the VA OIG also released a report validating Rodriguez’s — known to friends and colleagues as K-Rod — accusations.

That investigation found that the hospital kept open nearly 38,000 specialty appointment consultations and up to 215 more veterans may have died as a result.

Nick Schwellenbech, senior communications specialist for the OSC, also said, “Mr. Rodriguez came to OSC. Under our statute, when OSC finds a whistleblower’s disclosure meets our statutory standard, we refer those disclosures to the agency and mandate that they investigate the disclosures. In this case, we referred his disclosures to the VA and the VA tasked both its Office of Inspector General and Office of Medical Inspector investigate different aspects of Mr. Rodriguez’s disclosures.”

In this case, the Office of the Medical Inspector (OMI) investigated the scheduling allegations, while the VA OIG investigated the allegations involving patient deaths.

Brandon Coleman, a marine veteran and Phoenix VA whistleblower who recently made a landmark settlement with the VA, said the fact that both VA OIG and OSC validated Rodriguez’s allegations was significant.

“I always feel it is extremely significant when multiple outside agencies such as the Inspector General and the highly respected US Office of Special Counsel can agree on findings that more Veterans died awaiting care from the worst example of VA Healthcare in the nation, the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care System,” Coleman said.

Senator Chuck Grassley, a noted supporter of whistleblowers, issued this statement on the OSC findings: “Sometimes whistleblowers expose matters of life and death, other times they expose harm against the taxpayers, and sometimes they expose all of the above,” his statement read. “Kuauhtemoc Rodriguez of the Phoenix VA deserves praise and gratitude for coming forward about problems that cover all of the above.”

“Veterans’ health and safety is the VA’s no. 1 job. When care is delayed or mishandled, veterans suffer, and the taxpayers are shortchanged. The disclosures of Mr. Rodriguez, Brandon Coleman and many others are critical toward fixing these problems. The Office of Special Counsel also is critical. This office listens to whistleblowers and makes sure their material receives a full review. I look forward to continued justice for whistleblowers and the public they serve. I urge the VA leadership to ensure that all whistleblowers are treated fairly under the law.”

At the end of December 2016, TheDC exclusively reported that the Phoenix VA had convened an Administrative Investigative Board against Rodriguez.

He and others in his department are ostensibly accused of “workplace harassment” but Rodriguez and Coleman said they believe it was convened as whistleblower retaliation.

On January 12, Rodriguez will be questioned by the AIB and he told The Daily Caller he expects a Kafka-like experience: “An AIB is a type of VA court convened by Phoenix VA executives who then render judgement on me on allegations that have no evidence. I’m denied my civil rights, can’t get information on what it’s about. Even after they are done still will not know what exactly I’m being charged with. Then they can send me home to begin termination proceedings.”

The Phoenix VA Medical Center has a history of whistleblower retaliation, including against Coleman.

Coleman was “suspended and placed on administrative absence Feb. 2, 2015, for a supposed act of violence in the workplace — roughly two weeks after Grippen’s (the Phoenix VA medical director) first meeting about Coleman’s disclosures to the media,” according to an October 2016 story in TheDC.

Coleman said that Rodriguez should prepare himself for constant harassment from the VA.

“I don’t think a whistleblowers job is ever safe within the federal government for the rest of our careers. The Phoenix VA has proven, time and time again, no matter who the director is that they are willing to hunt a whistleblower to the ends of the earth in order to retaliate against them. They sent me home for 460 days when it was proven I told the truth and it was proven Director Grippen retaliated against me.

“I feel very strongly this current Phoenix VA culture is supported by both Sloan Gibson and VA Secretary Robert McDonald at the VA Central Office in DC as whistleblowers within the VA continue to have their careers destroyed across the country for doing nothing wrong, except telling the truth.”

Paul Coupaud, spokesperson for the Phoenix VA, provided this statement:

“Today the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), an independent federal agency, officially closed the matter of disclosures made by a whistleblower at the Phoenix VA Health Care System by stating that the agency reports ‘meet all statutory requirements and the findings appear reasonable.’ VA is strongly committed to developing long-term solutions that mitigate risks to the timeliness, cost-effectiveness, and quality of care provided through the Veterans Health Administration (VHA). Over the last few years VA has been implementing action plans to address many of the issues outlined in this report.”

“VA is undergoing a massive transformation we call MyVA,” said Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs Sloan Gibson. “We are working hard to provide Veterans high quality care where, when, and how they need it.”