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The VA’s Whistleblower Protection Unit Instead Created A ‘Hit List’ Of Whistleblowers

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Michael Volpe Contributor

The office within the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) tasked with protecting whistleblowers instead made what several whistleblowers called a “hit list.”

It’s part of a soap opera-like atmosphere between the VA and its most prominent whistleblowers, full of backstabbing, scheming, and duplicitous behavior.

On Jan. 30, 2018, VA employee Brandon Coleman put together an email with the names and brief biographies of twenty-eight VA whistleblowers.

The email judged the relative probability that each might join a new mentorship program which he created. (RELATED: VA Hired A Newly Released Felon)

Coleman is a former Phoenix VA whistleblower who was hired by the VA’s Office Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP) in the summer of 2017.

OAWP was the new office created by the Veterans Affairs Accountability Act; rather than providing accountability, the OAWP has targeted whistleblowers and attempted to silence them, according to interviews with several of those on the list.

Meanwhile Coleman, according to a VA whistleblower advocate who Coleman once asked for help, was never a whistleblower but rather used the system to stop a legitimate termination.

Flags fly at half mast at the Canandaigua VA Medical Center in Canandaigua, New York on June 4, 2019.  (Photo by Geoff Robins / AFP) (Photo credit should read GEOFF ROBINS/AFP/Getty Images)

Roger French worked for the VA for 33 years and retired as a human-resources executive in Seattle-Tacoma. He has since counseled dozens of VA employees across the country.

French said Coleman had reached out to him in 2014, and admitted to a series of volatile incidents including harassing two women. “At no point did he describe being a whistleblower,” French told The Daily Caller.

French said that he spoke to Coleman twice — the second time when he was already suspended — and that French refused to take Coleman’s case because he believed that there was cause to terminate him.

French has testified numerous times in front of Congress, including on July 13, 2018 in front of the House Veterans Affairs Committee when he mentioned Coleman.

In the testimony, he said Coleman and others “seek out employee info and then collectively conspire with agency leadership to fire the whistleblower.”

While the Phoenix VA is where the VA scandal originated, Coleman did not blow the whistle on the backlogs, but rather became a whistleblower shortly thereafter over veterans committing suicide, because his suicide prevention program was shut down.

But French said all that happened after his conversations with Coleman and his disclosures came after his proposed disciplinary action. (RELATED: Vietnam Vet Found Covered In Ants At VA Clinic In His Final Days — Twice)

Coleman’s long-time attorney is the Government Accountability Project (GAP), which is headed by Tom Devine.

GAP is a law firm which specializes in providing pro bono legal services to whistleblowers.

Devine defended Coleman, his work at OAWP and the list.

“With respect to the Phoenix suicide program, your questions mimics [sic] the agency’s hatchet job charges to support retaliation. If there were any basis for the Phoenix smears against Brandon, the VA would not have surrendered in his reprisal case; and reinstituted a more independent, ambitious version of suicide prevention work in Arizona after he blew the whistle on prior weaknesses,” Devine told The Daily Caller.

Coleman is a marine veteran and during his appeal, the Phoenix VA illegally accessed his medical records.

In 2015, Coleman was one of several VA whistleblowers, themselves veterans, featured in the Daily Caller who had their medical records illegally accessed.

When the Daily Caller suggested leverage provided by this illegal access caused the settlement, Devine said, “Yes, they illegally accessed his medical records. No, that didn’t automatically bar them from firing Brandon. It was another one of the many PPPs [prohibited personnel practices] we settled.”

Coleman settled with the VA in 2015 and moved to work at the VA in Prescott, Arizona.

WASHINGTON, DC – MARCH 27: U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie testifies during a hearing. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

He also became a media star, appearing not only all over local media, but Fox News, the Washington Post, and others including the Caller.

In August 2017, he accepted a job with the newly created OAWP.

OAWP was supposed to investigate whistleblower disclosures, take steps to hold bad managers accountable, and protect whistleblowers from retaliation.

In May 2018, the Daily Caller wrote another article about OAWP, based in part on a survey of whistleblowers who dealt with the office, where Coleman was criticized.

One whistleblower stated in the survey, “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.”

Devine’s defense of Coleman and the program.

“Brandon’s job was to make assessments on cases. Like all groups in society, some whistleblowers are credible and some aren’t,” Devine told The Daily Caller, “He made numerous positive judgments and acted on them successfully to restore whistleblowers’ careers. He provided lessons learned from his own painful but successful experience and vindication as a whistleblower.”

Devine defended the list made by Coleman as well, saying, “doing his job by communicating a negative judgment is not a hit list.”

The VA, in a statement, distanced itself from Coleman, the list and his program.

“The list you reference predates OAWP’s current leadership, which only recently learned of it after VA employees raised concerns about it.”

“OAWP leadership strongly supports protecting the identities of those that disclose information, and is working to understand why the list was established, its purpose and how it was used,” the statement continued. “The Whistleblower Mentor Program referenced in your email has been placed on hold and will remain on-hold until OAWP is able to meet its statutory mandate. At that time, the concept of such a peer-to-peer program may be evaluated.”

The first head of OAWP was Peter O’Rourke; Coleman made the list when O’Rourke headed OAWP. (RELATED: Lawsuit: Veteran Killed In VA Hospital When Doctors Injected ‘Fatal Dose Of Insulin’)

O’Rourke was then made Chief of Staff at the VA and even the Acting VA Secretary in the summer 2018, all while David Shulkin ran the agency.

O’Rourke’s role was reduced before he was terminated when Secretary Wilkie took over, and was recently announced as the executive director of Trump’s 2020 Campaign in Florida.

The Daily Caller spoke to several whistleblowers on the list and their assessment was starkly negative toward the list, Coleman, OAWP and the VA.

Matt Miller, director of US Department of Veterans Affairs Veterans Crisis Line works in his office in Canandaigua, New York on June 4, 2019. – Between 2008 and 2016, more than 6,000 veterans — many of them gun-owners — killed themselves each year, amounting to some 20 deaths a day, according to a report last year from the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The Veterans Crisis Line was launched in 2007 with a staff of 14; it now has more than 900 employees, with three call centers across the country, director Matt Miller told AFP. Forty years after the hell of Vietnam and 17 years after US troops first intervened in Afghanistan, “there is a lot more awareness” about veterans’ needs, said Marcelle Leis, who heads the Dwyer Project after 20 years in the Air National Guard. (Photo by Geoff Robins / AFP) (Photo credit should read GEOFF ROBINS/AFP/Getty Images)

Gregg Childs

Gregg Childs is a VA police officer and whistleblower currently working at the Fort Harrison, Montana VA Medical Center.

He was number seventeen on the list, and said he felt violated for being included.

He said that he provided OAWP with documentation of significant corruption of VA police leadership in his hospital, and rather than investigating his information, it was used to data mine him.

“He came forward to Secretary Shulkin at a town hall in August 201,” Coleman says in the list, “At the time, he had been reassigned to escorting and reproducing PIV badges while an AIB took place.”

Childs said that he spoke to Coleman about the mentorship program; he even interviewed, but said he stopped pursuing it after it was clear OAWP had no intention of investigating his claims.

Childs said his understanding of the program was that the OAWP would manage a dialogue between him and VA police leadership at his hospital; he said that in the end this made no sense since he was accusing the same VA police leadership of causing the problems.

Ghassan “Goose” Ghannoum

Ghassan “Goose” Ghannoum is a VA police whistleblower from the Los Angeles VA Medical Center.

He said he is number sixteen on the list.

Both he and Childs were two of four VA police featured in the Caller in April 2018.

Ghannoum said into the summer 2018 he was pleased with OAWP, because OAWP, and Coleman specifically, secured a stay order, barring a disciplinary action against Ghannoum while OAWP investigated.

Then, in January 2019 Ghannoum told the Caller the stay order was lifted without warning and his file closed without action.

He said after he complained to OAWP — arguing that they hadn’t really done a thorough investigation — OAWP triggered another cursory investigation which also quickly ended without action.

He said Coleman offered him the same mentorship program but cut off all contact sometime in 2018. Since Coleman was no longer calling him, he did not pursue the matter any further.

The Daily Caller sent questions to the VA on August 27, 2019, in the afternoon. By the morning of August 28, both Childs and Ghannoum received emails with similar language from OAWP, restarting stalled investigations.

“I have been assigned to investigate whether your proposed removal is in retaliation for protected disclosures that you made or protected activities that you participated in. I am currently in the planning stage of my investigation,” an email from Greg Graham, an investigator at OAWP, to Childs on August 28 stated.

“I have been assigned to conduct an additional review of case Los Angeles-CA-1,719 (formerly Los Angeles, CA-2017-2626). Once the review of your matter is complete, you will be notified of the disposition,” Dana Dizel, an Advisory and Analyst Specialist at OAWP, told Ghannoum also on August 28.

Tim Petosky

Tim Petosky is a VA Police officer at the Seattle VA Medical Center; he was also featured with Ghannoum and Childs in the Caller.

He said he was number six on the list.

He said he spoke to Coleman after Coleman worked at OAWP but was never offered a chance to join the mentorship program.

He also said his disclosures were old by then, and he was by 2017 acting more as an advocate for other VA cops than making new disclosures.

In the list, Coleman refers to Petosky as a hub.

Petosky said he was especially troubled by one portion his description, “I would like to see him have a potential path back,” Coleman said.

“A potential path back to what?” Petosky asked in an interview with The Daily Caller.

He noted that his evaluations are always sterling, so Coleman could only be talking about his whistleblowing.

Dan Martin

Martin is a whistleblower at the Northern Indiana VA Medical Center, and he said he was number four on the list.

He said Coleman approached him about the mentorship program but, as with Ghannoum, Coleman stopped communicating with him and Martin never pursued.

Joseph Colon

Joseph Colon is a whistleblower at the Puerto Rico VA Medical Center.

He said that he was number two on the list.

He said he nearly accepted a spot in the mentorship program, however Coleman pressured him to remain silent.

“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 which Colon then shared with the Caller.

Colon said the final straw came when Coleman had secured Colon a job in D.C. but would require Colon not to report anything to the House Veteran Affairs Committee (HVAC).

“It’s not in my DNA to keep quiet,” Colon told Coleman in response.

“It [the list] has bad intentions,” Colon said. “It’s a hit list.”

He was one of several whistleblowers who spoke to the Caller to use the term “hit list.”

“By having a profile on 25 to 30 whistleblowers, in my opinion it was to monitor us, to determine if we were salvageable and who could do more damage through the media,” Colon explained.

He was particularly concerned that whistleblowers’ media contacts were routinely analyzed.

“He would say anything to get a national interview,” Coleman wrote of James DeNofrio, an Altoona, PA. VA Medical Center whistleblower.

“She has many national media contacts,” Coleman said of Germaine Clarno, a Hines VA Medical Center whistleblower, who was on the list.

Coleman said of Colon, “He has solid media contacts.”

Colon said he worried that those whistleblowers not identified with extensive media contacts could then be targeted because retaliation against them would have far less media blowback. (RELATED: How The Military Bureaucracy Failed An Alleged Rape Victim, Leaving Her Behind)

USA Today’s glowing profile of Coleman

On August 16, 2019, the USA Today published an article about Coleman and OAWP, where they attacked the current head of OAWP, Tammy Bonzanto, who took over in January 2019.

“In interviews and written complaints reviewed by USA TODAY, three other employees who requested anonymity described Bonzanto as a leader who has cut herself off from employees and issued blanket orders without listening to front-line staff,” the USA Today article stated.

This largely mirrored criticism of Bonzanto by Devine.

“Instead, we have an unqualified commitment to him [Coleman] and his efforts to restore an OAWP program that to our happy surprise was making a difference until Ms. Bonzanto’s arrival,” Devine said in an email to the Caller.

Numerous VA whistleblowers were upset by the article including DeNofrio who sent an email complaining to USA Today’s editorial board.

“Regarding your article today on the VA OAWP, over the past two years I and multiple VA whistleblowers have discussed with Ms. Donovan Slack via email, texts, face to face meetings regarding OAWP employee Brandon Colman actively targeting whistleblowers,” DeNofrio said in an email on August 16.

He also provided an email exchange he had the story’s author, Slack, from May 2018, where he provided the same text messages Colon had with Coleman where Coleman asked for Colon’s silence.

“Keep me in the loop. It is important what OAWP does or doesn’t do and I plan to write something about it although it may be several weeks,” Slack replied, but that article never materialized.

Slack, along with USA Today editors, Sean Rossman and Kristen Delguzzi, did not respond to emails for comment.

The whistleblowers said that they believed this list represented their worst fears about OAWP, which they believe, rather than protecting them and investigating their claims, has been weaponized to be used to retaliate against them.

“Every whistleblower on the “Whistleblower Hit List” has  been terminated, suspended, been placed under multiple investigation or there case dropped without cause. Everyone on that list has received additional Whistleblower retaliation and adverse actions by the VA,” said Greg Childs.

According to an article in Government Executive, OAWP is currently being investigated by the VA Office of Inspector General and the results should be released soon.