VA Whistle-Blower Office Failing Whistle-Blowers, Group Finds

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Michael Volpe Contributor
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A new report from an advocacy group found the new Veteran Affairs (VA) whistle-blower office largely fails whistle-blowers.

The VA Office of Accountability and Whistle-blower Protection (OAWP) was formed when the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act went into effect in June 2017.

The new office was supposed to hold bad managers accountable and protect whistle-blowers from retaliation.

The office made an initial splash when Brandon Coleman, a well-known VA whistleblower from the Phoenix VA, was immediately brought on board.

But a new survey from Whistleblowers of America — a non-profit which helps whistle-blowers who suffer retaliation- done for Congress and shared exclusively with The Daily Caller finds that overwhelmingly whistle-blowers have been frustrated by the office, which has largely failed them.

Jacqueline Garrick is the founder of the Whistleblowers of America.

She said OAWP suffers from serious issues: non-transparency in their process, lack of clarity, and whistle-blowers complained that communication was non-existent.

During the interview, she noted rhetorically: “are they (OAWP) mediators, arbitrators, investigators, or advocates?”

Garrick said her group sent out the survey to 23 VA whistle-blowers and 11 responded; all but one was unhappy with their experience.

“They did close my case without informing me. I have no I idea what the OAWP is doing. The only information that I received (is) that the VA was still investigating my claims was while listening to the NPR story about me on April 27, 2018,” one VA whistle-blower noted in the survey.

Another whistle-blower was equally pointed in their criticism. “I never heard from any individual at the OAWP regarding any aspect of my reporting to the OAWP (let alone opening a case). I have copies of every correspondence with OAWP. No reply, no response.”

Coleman himself was criticized by several whistle-blowers, including one who said: “I received an email after contacting them several times that was cryptic. I contacted Brandon Coleman who emailed me a form that was supposed to have been given to me several months prior. No response after I submitted the whistleblower form.”

Curt Cashour is the press secretary for the VA, and he defended the OAWP. “The purpose of OAWP is to investigate whistleblower disclosures and ensure senior-leader accountability, not to settle personal scores or shield people who have failed to uphold VA’s values from being held accountable for clear instances of misconduct,” Cashour noted.

VA whistle-blower interviewed for this story — both on and off the record — generally agreed with the assessment of survey, with two notable exceptions.

Dale Klein

Dale Klein is a former employee and whistle-blower at the Poplar Bluffs, Mo. VA Medical Center and he said that his attorney, Natalie Khawam, submitted his case on to the OAWP on the day the office officially opened.

Klein was still terminated a couple of months later.

He said no one at the OAWP ever called him; instead, he called repeatedly before finally relating to his case agent who told him the investigation was being wrapped up.

“How can the investigation be wrapping up if you haven’t even talked to me?” Klein noted.

On the same call, the case agent then admitted he was unaware that the VA Office of Inspector General had recently found in Klein’s favor.

His next and only other communication was an email from his case officer on February 1, 2018 which stated: “OAWP has reached a determination in this matter.  This matter has concluded and will be closed in our tracker shortly.”

Cashour said of Klein: “Dr. Klein is not a VA employee. His removal was in no way related to his protected activity.  VA is dedicated to ensuring Veterans get the best possible care.  We encourage employees to identify anything that may impede VA’s mission and we take seriously any efforts to retaliate against those individuals.  Dr. Klein was employed as a physician at the Poplar Bluff VA Medical Center, and like all of our employees at VA, we expected him to do his job and, in his case, see patients.  He was removed for failure to follow orders related to his duties.”

Klein ran the pain management clinic at the Poplar VA; after making a disclosure, Klein — who is board certified in two specialties — had his clinical duties suspended by the VA for approximately a year and a half before abruptly being told to resume his duties in the summer of 2017.

When he asked for direction on how he was supposed to do this, the hospital terminated him for failing to see patients in August 2017.

Klein is a board member of Whistleblowers of America and participated in the survey, he noted to The Daily Caller.

Sean Higgins

Sean Higgins is a former employee of the Memphis VA; he’s been credited with more than 40 disclosures of waste, fraud, and abuse at the hospital.

He’s been terminated by the VA three times; twice getting his job back while the third is appealed.

Higgins was terminated the last time on the eve of the new VA bill being signed and was told within hours of the bill being signed.

Higgins said he shares many of his disclosures with the OAWP, but they have yet to act.

“Sean Higgins is not a VA employee and hasnt been since June of last year,” Cashour said.

Joseph Colon

Colon is a whistle-blower at the Puerto Rico VA and he said Coleman and the OAWP did offer to help him advance his career, but that offer was contingent on his silence.

“Dude chill out. Let me try and get you into the program before you start pointing out who is bad and who is good,” Coleman said in one text message while trying to convince Colon to remain silent.

“It’s hard to come off the island (whistleblower island)” Coleman said in another.

But Colon declined the offer.

“Brandon, I appreciate the offer,” Colon finally responded, “It’s not in my DNA to keep quiet.”

“OAWP offered to help Mr. Colon. He refused that help,” Cashour said.

Greg Chiles and Ghassan “Goose” Ghannoum 

Ghannoum and Chiles were two of four VA police officers featured in an April article in TheDC, and both said they were happy with the support provided by OAWP.

Chiles said that after the OAWP stepped in a lot of retaliation ceased or diminished and Ghannoum said that Coleman handled his case and was able to secure an executive stay order which effectively stopped any retaliation by the hospital against him while OAWP investigated; the investigation is still ongoing.

In one instance, Ghannoum said, his hospital attempted to terminate him while he was on vacation and Coleman used the stay order to stop the termination.

Garrick did not diminish the effectiveness and use of these executive stay orders but noted further, “Is that all they can do? Because if it is, they should say so.”

None of the other whistle-blowers who spoke to The Daily Caller said they were offered an executive stay order.