VA Whistle-Blower Finally Has Benefits Approved

PHOTO: REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Michael Volpe Contributor
Font Size:

Less than a month after being featured on The Daily Caller, a Veteran Administration (VA) whistle-blower who was facing homelessness and an intransigent bureaucracy, suddenly had benefits approved.

Sean Higgins is a Memphis VA whistle-blower who was on the brink of homelessness when he was featured in TheDC in late January.

Higgins was credited with more than 40 disclosures of waste, fraud and abuse at the Memphis VA; he is primarily responsible for that hospital being designated as one of the four worst and thereby required to brief the secretary’s office weekly.

Higgins had previously been terminated twice, only to receive his job back. He was terminated a third time in June 2017, and that termination is being appealed.

When the Daily Caller article came out, Higgins was weeks away from eviction, even though he’d been waiting more than a year for his disability payments to be approved and for more than a year of back pay.

After the article came out, Higgins said he again reached out to his U.S. congressman, Democrat Steve Cohen, and his senator, Republican Bob Corker, and asked each office to again reach out to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which is handling his disability benefits.

Higgins had originally submitted his benefits in October 2016, but it got lost in the VA bureaucracy and was not submitted to OPM until March 2017; OPM had still not approve it when the article came out.

After both offices made another contact, things moved quickly.

Higgins received an email from Rep. Cohen’s office on Feb. 8, suggesting progress was being made: “I spoke to our OPM liaison today, and while he could not give me a definitive date that your case will be resolved, he did verify that it is under review by the retirement board.”

Bartholomew Sullivan, Cohen’s communications director, declined to comment.

On Feb. 14, Sen. Corker’s office sent Higgins an email, saying final terms had been reached and money would be wired within days.

“Back pay from 1 July 2017- 30 Jan 2018 has been calculated.    Final amount of $****. ** has been keyed for direct deposit to (Higgins) Bank account and should be deposited within 24-48 hours (Saturday, 17 Feb).   Case has been approved with interim payments (reduced to avoid any overpayment possibility) of $***** monthly beginning on 1 March 2018.  Once the case is finalized, that interim payment usually goes up slightly, but I do not have that number yet,” the email from Corker’s office stated.

Higgins said by Friday evening, Feb. 16, the wire had hit his bank account.

“While congressional offices are not able to influence the decision-making process, our office is always happy to serve as a liaison for Tennesseans. We contacted the Office of Personnel Management to request a review of the merits of Mr. Higgins’ case and are glad he received a favorable ruling,” said Micah Johnson, Corker’s spokeswoman.

An email and voice message left with OPM’s media relations department were left unreturned.

He said he won’t be evicted and he can now hold his financial head above water but that he needs all his outstanding issues with the VA to be resolved before he feels whole.

Higgins’ disputed back pay is stuck in a bureaucratic morass because it is in a section of the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) judiciary, which has no quorum and thereby can’t make rulings.

Higgins was terminated ostensibly for creating a hostile work environment however numerous VA whistle-blower noted at the time their belief that his termination was blatant whistle-blower retaliation.

His appeal is in process, and Higgins said a hearing should be scheduled in April or May.

Willie Logan, the public affairs officer for the Memphis VA, declined comment, citing privacy for a personnel matter.

Curt Cashour, a press person in the VA’s central office, said bluntly: “He is not owed any back pay,” a charge which Higgins denies, and the issue continues to be appealed.

Higgins was approved for disability benefits based on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) related to his whistle-blowing, and he noted: “The VA by their actions have ignored the Americans with Disabilities Act, by ignoring I have a disability caused by them. It may be time to close the VA for the corruption gives the appearance of organized crime. From the agency’s top administrator to the corrupt new VA director.”