VA managers have a practice of retaliating against veterans who question or report neglect and abuse of other veterans. VA employees who see their duty as reporting the same are labeled “whistle blowers” and face the same retaliation.
The selfish and self serving actions of some VA managers is contributing to the veteran suicide crisis.
These are some well written reports detailing this shameful behavior. It makes for compelling reading.
For VA Whistleblowers, A Culture Of Fear And Retaliation
June 21, 2018 5:03 AM ET
Employees at the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System in Montgomery, Ala., say they face retaliation when reporting mismanagement or abuse.
Alan Hyde is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System. He served in Operation Desert Storm, where he suffered an in-service leg injury. But it’s his time with the Central Alabama VA, he says, that has left him more rattled, frustrated and angry.
“It’s a toxic environment there,” Hyde says. “And I feel sorry for the veterans.”
Hyde is both a patient and a former employee at the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System in Montgomery. He supervised employees who took vets for treatment outside the VA. Hyde was fired after six months for unspecified misconduct. He is among dozens of people who say they faced vicious retaliation when they tried to improve conditions there or hold managers accountable.
More than 30 current and former VA employees spoke to NPR. They include doctors, nurses and administrators — many of them veterans themselves. All describe an entrenched management culture that uses fear and intimidation to prevent potential whistleblowers from talking.
Leslie Wiggins during a hearing at Georgia State University n Atlanta on Aug. 7, 2013. The hearings held by Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., examined a report outlining alleged mismanagement at the Atlanta Veterans Medical Center before Wiggins was hired.
“If you say anything about patient care and the problems, you’re quickly labeled a troublemaker and attacked by a clique that just promotes itself. Your life becomes hell,” one longtime employee at the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System, or CAVHCS, told NPR. Like many we interviewed there, she requested anonymity out of fear for her job.
The problems are especially acute at hospital complexes in Montgomery and Tuskegee, Ala., which are part of a regional network known as VA Southeast Network VISN 7. The Department of Veterans Affairs divides veterans’ health care into 21 geographic regions called VISNs.
Workers say the retaliatory tactics run the gamut from sophomoric (a shift manager pouring salt into a subordinate’s coffee cup) to hard-to-fathom (isolation rooms used as psychological coercion) and more.
“There’s no accountability,” Hyde says. “And it’s gonna be a never-ending cycle here until someone steps in and starts cleaning house from the top and putting people in who care about the veterans.”
But neither those charged with federal oversight nor the VA itself has taken those steps, months or even years after the first complaints were reported.
Investigation Into The VA Reveals A Culture Of Retaliation Against Whistleblowers
VISN 7 leads the VA in the number of whistleblower complaints per veteran served. The VA itself leads all federal agencies in the number of whistleblowers who say they’ve been retaliated against — up to 40 percent annually, according to federal testimony. Two nonprofit groups that support whistleblowers say the number of retaliation cases they see from the VA is far higher.In the case of Central Alabama, NPR’s investigation found that senior leadership subjected employees who spoke up to similar patterns of punishment:
- Physical isolation and verbal abuse.
- Bullying in and outside the workplace.
- Counter-investigations that blamed the employees for creating a “hostile work environment” or other vague and often unspecified charges.
Why are conditions so bad in Central Alabama? Watchdog groups and affected workers believe it’s a combination of weak, inconsistent enforcement of whistleblower protection laws, a senior managerial culture that practices and condones bullying, and a VA system that too often sends whistleblower grievances right back to regional managers who are often part of the original complaints.
The scope of the retaliation and sheer number of retaliation complaints in VISN 7 and across the agency raise questions about whether the VA can adequately police itself and embrace whistleblowers as President Trump and the VA have vowed to do.
Stealing food from vets
“I hadn’t been there [Central Alabama] two weeks when an employee came in to tell me about illegal activities in the kitchen, and he stopped right there and he said, ‘But if you’re not going to do anything about it, I’m going to keep my mouth shut, otherwise I become the target,'” says retired U.S. Army Col. Cynthia Chavez.
Chavez has some 50 years of combined Army active duty, Reserve and VA service. She has consistent outstanding or exceptional performance reviews across both institutions.
In June 2014, she was hired to lead Nutrition and Food Services for Central Alabama’s VA. She soon found that both the Montgomery and Tuskegee hospital kitchens — especially Tuskegee’s — had serious, systemic problems.
Some employees, she says, routinely came in late, left early or didn’t show up at all. One, she says, would openly drink on the job. That employee once told a veteran in a PTSD program, ” ‘I’ll give you the bullet to put in the gun to shoot yourself,’ ” she says.
Veterans Groups Concerned That Lack Of VA Leadership Will Hurt Millions Of Veterans
Remarkably, that wasn’t the worst of it.
Chavez was told that a longtime employee was allegedly running a side catering business out of the VA kitchen in Tuskegee.
“She was using government employees, government food, on government time, for her catering business,” Chavez says. “She was selling it [food] through her catering business” to area companies and churches. “And so when I did my due diligence, sure enough, she couldn’t answer questions about how she’d catered this event and yet she was on duty.”
One Valentine’s Day, for example, a case of steaks and cheesecakes meant for a special hospital meal for vets went missing.Several co-workers told Chavez the thievery had been going on for years.
Chavez was shocked and moved quickly to investigate and temporarily suspend the employee, emails and documents show. She also imposed stronger discipline and order on a hospital kitchen she says “was like the Wild West. They[employees]
did what they wanted to.” All the food in the kitchen is from appropriated funds meant only for veterans in hospital treatment. “Myself, as a 30-year veteran, I couldn’t even eat there.”
Soon after, Chavez got the first of many anonymous-threat letters slipped under her Tuskegee office door. “This isn’t the Army, where you had connections. This is the VA and we will get you,” one letter said.
But Chavez says that the anonymous-threat letters were only slightly more menacing than what she soon got from her boss and the local union leaders.
Following an almost classic whistleblower retaliation script, instead of support, Chavez was soon investigated for “abuse of authority” and “creating a hostile work environment.”
The union, Tuskegee AFGE Local 110, quickly announced it had taken a vote of “no confidence” in Chavez.
And her top boss, a career VA employee named Leslie Wiggins, soon told her in no uncertain terms to back off.
In fact, Wiggins then took charge of all discipline and oversight of the VA’s troubled hospital kitchen. She also stripped Chavez of all the authority and oversight she had been hired to impose on the department. The reason given, emails and documents show, was Chavez’s “inappropriate disciplinary actions” against the food service staff.
When a local union official complained that Chavez was issuing what he called “unsubstantiated” AWOLs, or absent without leave sanctions, Wiggins — then serving as acting director of CAVHCS as well as head of VISN 7 — emailed Chavez: “This is a very disturbing email” about what “may be a problem practice” of issuing AWOLs. “So until further notice,” Wiggins wrote, “there are to be NO AWOL’s issued until I review them.”
“I am trying to hold employees accountable and all I get is pushback through anonymous letters,” Chavez says. “And even when HR was saying, ‘No, she’s justified in what she’s trying to do,’ they would not let me take any discipline against anything that the employees were doing.”
She notified federal offices that she was the target of whistleblower retaliation. Nothing, so far, has come of it. Chavez eventually went out on medical leave to care for her cancer-stricken husband.
This past January, Chavez’s boss and Central Alabama’s director, Linda Boyle, emailed her: “The decision has been made to terminate you effective January, 30, 2018.
“Chavez’s request to be allowed to retire at the end of March and to use her remaining sick leave to help her husband was denied. She reluctantly retired.
Despite several Freedom of Information Act requests, Chavez has never seen details of the charges brought against her in what’s known as an Administrative Investigation Board (AIB).
The woman who was allegedly stealing food from veterans for years through her side catering business? She was allowed to retire with full benefits. There’s no indication she was ever disciplined by the VA or the local union.
Neither Wiggins nor Boyle would comment on Chavez’s case or the wider pattern of retaliation.
Dr. Julian Kassner, a former lieutenant commander, is a Navy-trained physician with a stellar record. The Central Alabama VA hired the native New Yorker in 2016 to clean up a deeply troubled radiology department that had been embroiled in a 2014 scandal involving falsified records and substandard care. More than 2,000 X-rays of veterans went unread over a five-year period.
Kassner, interviews with his former subordinates show, worked fast to try to clean up the department. His radiology co-workers liked that he was taking charge. He got a good performance review from his immediate boss and was even tasked with helping to implement radiology improvements across the Southeast district.
Then suddenly, he found himself the target of an investigation and workplace retaliation.
“I was absolutely shell-shocked,” Kassner says, “and initially my thinking was, ‘Well, I have no idea what this is about, but hopefully it’ll get sorted out in a day or two.'”
He immediately sent a letter requesting clarification as to what exactly he’d been accused of and an opportunity to respond.
Soon after, Kassner, like other whistleblowers in VISN 7, was isolated — literally — in a remote room. He was ordered not to talk with colleagues or access documents while the investigation unfolded.
To be closer to his family in neighboring Florida, Kassner’s contract allowed him to read medical images remotely part of the time, a common practice in radiology. The Montgomery leadership began to use that telework agreement against him and ordered him on site full time.
During the initial days of retaliation, he thought he was going crazy.
But he wasn’t. Audio of a meeting between two HR officials in Montgomery and Dr. Randall Weaver, then the acting chief of staff at the hospital there, describes the VISN leadership’s alleged view of Kassner.
In the audio, Weaver says he hopes Kassner quits because if he comes back from sick leave, Atlanta VA leaders in VISN 7 will surely find any way to fire him.
“The thing for him, because of his situation where they’re gonna — people will be after you again no matter what you do, even if you sneeze wrong they’re gonna get you,” Weaver says. He adds that because of Kassner’s brusque personality, “it’s easy to get stuff on him,” meaning to get people to turn against him.
Weaver did not respond to NPR’s request for comment.
The actions alarmed Sheila Walsh, the director of human resources for the Central Alabama VA.
“That’s what made me feel so sick to my stomach, I mean because that’s all code for they’re going to target him,” says Walsh, who made the recording. She routinely taped meetings under a disabilities act health accommodation.
Kassner was soon fired from CAVHCS. He was never given a reason. Documents show that the Alabama VA has stonewalled his attorney’s efforts to uncover evidence.
For Kassner, the audiotape, the emails and the scores of documents — all of which he has turned over to federal investigators — underscore what he and others call a deeply troubling “mafia culture” at CAVHCS and VISN 7 leadership.
“Toxic, dysfunction and out of control is an understatement. There are people at the senior level there that consider themselves the equivalent of a ‘made man’ in the mafia, that there are no rules that apply to them up to and including fraud and record falsification,” he says. “How this is allowed to go on is just mind boggling.”
His case may have another serious wrinkle. Kassner says he has evidence that his federal pay and employment records were altered by someone in Central Alabama. He says they falsely show he was “separated” from the VA before the end of his two-year probationary period, a key legal time frame for a federal employee because of work rules and benefit eligibility. They listed income after his probationary period, Kassner points out, as “deferred income” from a previous year. “It’s record falsification pure and simple,” he says.
HR director targeted
Remember Sheila Walsh, the head of the VA’s Central Alabama human resources division? The CAVHCS and VISN 7 leadership went after her, too.
As HR director, Walsh, a 20-year Army vet, stood up for Chavez, for Kassner and, documents show, for several other Alabama whistleblowers she believed were facing unjust treatment and illegal retaliation.
After Walsh had told superiors, yet again, that the case against Kassner was legally and morally suspect, her supervisor Leslie Wiggins emailed her to “stand down.”
“I went on the record [with her supervisors] saying I’m not going to participate in this level of corruption, illegal actions,” Walsh says. “And so I became the enemy. Instead of them investigating the wrongdoings, they started investigating me.”
The retaliation also included intimidation and four weeks of isolation. Like Kassner, Chavez and the others, she was assigned to an isolated office and told not to communicate with fellow staffers or access documents while the investigation unfolded.
“They wanted me to feel humiliated,” Walsh says, “trying to break me down. And they did break me down.”
A CAVHCS supervisor took away her office keys and even took possession of her Army service medals, military command coins and an American flag in a case that she got for 20 years of honorable military service, as well as family photos. Walsh believes taking control of her personal possessions was clearly part of the retaliation.
“It’s a kind of psychological violence,” she says, tearing up over the loss of her Army service mementos. “I feel violated. I feel like someone robbed me.”
CAVHCS has, so far, ignored her efforts to get those personal military items returned. She has even appealed to the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs to get her military items back. So far, there has been no action.
These retaliatory tactics in Alabama follow a clear pattern: Employees who flag problems or wrongdoing are quickly counter-investigated — almost always charged with creating “a hostile work environment” or other vague charges. Then the employee is isolated – literally.
“Basically we call it putting the whistleblowers in professional solitary confinement,” says Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project. He says it’s a tactic long used by some VA managers to try to crush whistleblowers. “Keep them away from the evidence, make them pariahs among their peers. Make an example out of them. Generally the rooms where these people are assigned to bounce off the walls without duties are unheated in the winter and uncooled in the summer. It’s like putting somebody in a hot box.”
Senior VA leaders in Alabama and Atlanta declined to answer questions about the alleged pattern of retaliation, corruption and mismanagement.
The director of the VA Southeast Network VISN 7 – Leslie Wiggins — refused multiple interview requests through three different spokespersons.
The current director of Central Alabama’s VA, Linda Boyle, also refused multiple interview requests through spokespeople.
Jan Northstar, the VA’s Southeast District public affairs director, said by email that they cannot discuss individual cases without written consent. She added the “VA does not tolerate retaliation. Any employee who feels he or she is experiencing retaliation should contact the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection.”
Like Chavez, Kassner and scores of others we talked with in Alabama, former HR director Walsh has, in fact, filed formal complaints with the VA’s own Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, as well as with the federal Office of Special Counsel, the federal Merit Systems Protection Board and other offices.
Walsh’s doctor says she has a form of PTSD from the VA experience. The HR director remains out on unpaid medical leave after exhausting her annual leave.
Walsh and the others want those federal bodies or Congress itself to take bold action to change the years-long pattern of retaliation.
So far, their cases have been largely met with inaction, silence or indifference.
One whistleblower wins
VISN 7’s director Leslie Wiggins, in fact, has had numerous whistleblower retaliation complaints filed against her, including one by an employee in her immediate office in Atlanta. The federal Office of Special Counsel ruled against Wiggins and her office in a case that, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution put it, showed that the Atlanta VA seemed more preoccupied with halting bad press coverage than stopping a series of veteran suicides in the Atlanta area.
Retired Army Sgt. Maj. Greg Kendall, a 30-year veteran with tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, took a job as a public affairs officer (PAO) in the Atlanta VA after his military service. Kendall says he raised concerns about spending tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars promoting a local charity gala that senior VA employees planned to attend. At the time, the Atlanta office was under fire for underfunding and understaffing veteran mental health services, including suicide prevention efforts.
“The leadership was not interested in my concerns and basically told me to mind my own business,” Kendall says.
When the charity story went public, the Atlanta management quickly gave him a bad evaluation, placed him on a performance improvement plan, and, following the pattern, isolated him in a small, shabby, vacant patient room while he was “investigated.”
“The entire leadership team knew that I was in that patient room for almost a year that could have been used for veteran care,” Kendall says, but “they were more concerned about retaliation than taking care of veterans.”
Kendall fought back, filing for whistleblower protection. The federal Office of Special Counsel (OSC) investigated and ruled in Kendall’s favor, saying he had been targeted and punished for speaking up.
“Mr. Kendall did the right thing by raising concerns about an inappropriate expenditure of taxpayer dollars, but the Atlanta VA failed to heed his warnings and instead targeted Mr. Kendall,” the Special Counsel’s Carolyn Lerner wrote in the OSC ruling. Lerner added that “the VA must continue working to make its culture more welcoming to whistleblowers in all of its facilities.”
Kendall says he blew the whistle after thinking about the vets he served with in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“They depend on the VA,” he said. “So the very fact that we (Atlanta VA) have been cited for mismanagement that led to suicides told me that we needed to do something to make sure that that didn’t happen again.”
His case is one of the only whistleblower cases to succeed against VISN 7 leadership.
Can the VA police itself?
Nearly a year ago, the VA reorganized the unit responsible for protecting workers who call out wrongdoing, waste, fraud and abuse. In that 11-month period, the new Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP) has received 120 whistleblower complaints from VISN 7: the most complaints of retaliation per veteran served of the department’s 21 VISNs.
Only VISN 22 (Southern California, Arizona and New Mexico) and VISN 8 (Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands) had similar numbers, but both serve a larger number of veterans. VISN 8, for example, had about 1.5 times as many completed veteran appointments in 2017, according to the VA’s own patient access data.
Of those 120 complaints against VISN 7, 79 were determined to be of “reasonable belief” and 51 investigations were opened.
Yet only 11 of those 51 are currently under investigation by OAWP. The other 40 were sent back to VISN 7 or district level for investigation.
It’s exactly that investigatory boomerang, critics say, that highlights why the VA is so ineffectual at policing whistleblower retaliation.
For example, emails from Walsh, the HR executive, show that during her last contact with OAWP, the office told her that her case was under investigation. But Walsh hasn’t heard from OAWP in more than eight months.
“No calls, no emails, no texts, nothing. It’s like we don’t exist,” she says.
VA spokeswoman Ashleigh Barry said the OAWP would not comment on active investigations or allegations of worker retaliation at VISN 7, but said the department takes all allegations seriously.
The Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act expanded the authority and support for the OAWP, the VA’s office that now shares the bill’s name.
But a year later, there’s skepticism the OAWP is living up to its name.
“We’ve got a very sick organization. The important thing (for the VA) is to squelch the whistleblowers to speak. You know, it’s like shoot the messenger because it’s not the message we want to hear,” says VA whistleblower Sheila Meuse, who has 30-plus years of federal service — almost all of it at VA facilities across the country.
Meuse rose from a clinician to, in 2014, serving briefly as the third in command at Central Alabama. “I always had either outstanding or exceptional ratings,” she says. “I can’t remember any one rating ever that was below exceptional in my career history.”
Just four months into her new job in Alabama, Meuse and her direct boss, Richard Tremaine, exposed unethical practices — part of that wait-times scandal in 2014 that played out in multiple VA hospitals across the country.
Central Alabama has long had other, well-documented problems. CAVHCS was investigated by the Office of Inspector General, which confirmed it had some of the worst wait times in the country.
VISN 7 was recently cited for failing “vulnerable veterans” by not adequately providing and repairing wheelchairs and scooters for disabled service men and women. Also, in 2017 a Navy veteran with dementia wandered away from the Tuskegee VA dementia unit. He was never found.
But the wait-time scandal in Alabama also involved misconduct, negligence and cover-up: several thousand veteran X-rays were never read, and one VA employee in Tuskegee took a veteran in recovery to a crack house to buy drugs. The employee even charged the VA several hundred dollars in overtime pay for the drug-buying binge.
Meuse and Tremaine, gave inspectors evidence that the then-director had known about cooking the wait time books for at least a year. That CAVHCS director, James Talton, was eventually fired for neglect of duty.
Yet, lost in all that scandal was what happened to whistleblowers Tremaine and Meuse.
“We were excluded, we were yelled at. I was detailed to another facility. I was met by nothing but retaliation, resistance and shunning,” Meuse says. “It was just a horrible, horrible experience. Totally a nightmare.”
The Atlanta VA director launched an administrative probe of them. They were isolated and stripped of duties. Atlanta wanted to know if the two whistleblowers had behaved in a way consistent “with the VA’s core values.”
Tremaine took a senior management job at a VA hospital in Colorado. Meuse left the VA. She now sells real estate around Montgomery.
Tremaine believes the genesis of CAVHC’s deep problems “has a lot to do with nepotism and an overall lack of real commitment to fix things by a minority of people who’ve maintained control and leadership” despite numerous investigations and a flood of complaints. “We [whistleblowers] should really have a T-shirt that says ‘I Survived CAVHCS.’ “
Improving VA management and protecting workers who speak up was one of President Trump’s campaign pledges.
“Those entrusted with the sacred duty of serving our veterans will be held accountable for the care they provide,” the president said at a VA reform bill signing ceremony last year. “At the same time, this bill protects whistleblowers who do the right thing. We want to reward, cherish, and promote the many dedicated employees at the VA.”
Meuse is not convinced the newly rebranded whistleblower protection office can fix what she calls an abusive ethos that runs deep in some parts of the VA, especially in Alabama.
“I don’t think naming an office is how you fix an organizational culture that is really rancid and full of cronyism, favoritism; the old guard that takes care of themselves to maintain the status quo instead of caring for veterans,” she says.
Many watchdog groups agree. The complaints about President Trump’s newly created office include that it’s understaffed and that investigations drag on.
But the biggest critique is that the whistleblower protection office or OAWP can’t really enforce its findings.
“I’ve been impressed that the new OAWP is actually making a good faith effort. But they don’t have any teeth to their good faith,” says Tom Devine with the nonprofit Government Accountability Project.
He says the office is staffed by people whose hearts are in the right place. But “until they get some enforcement teeth, all they are going to be is background noise. And right now the situation at the VA is, by far, the most intolerable in the [federal] government.”
Devine says numbers to his office show that about 40 percent of all whistleblower retaliation complaints from the entire U.S. government come from the VA. Federal testimony supports those numbers.
Central to the problem is that whistleblowers’ retaliation complaints can often end up being handled by the very people accused of doing the retaliation. In Alabama and Georgia, as we’ve shown, it’s a common tactic to open up a counter-investigation of the worker who raises issues. That often includes nebulous charges that the whistleblower is creating a “hostile environment.”
“I haven’t heard anyone tell me that when they’ve gone to this office of accountability that they’ve actually been assisted,” says Jackie Garrick, the founding director of the independent group Whistleblowers of America.
Garrick says at least 80 percent of all cases that come into her office are from VA employees.
In fact, tensions within the VA over whistleblowers came to light when a congressman released correspondence this week.
In a strongly worded letter, the VA’s Inspector General (OIG) voiced deep concern that the OAWP is failing to turn over key records and information about the 150 to 170 employee retaliation complaints that office receives every month.
The inspector general is the VA’s oversight body tasked with audits, investigations and detecting waste, abuse and mismanagement.
VA Inspector General Michael J. Missal wrote that “despite repeated assurances that these records would be made available, the OIG has not yet been provided this important information.” Missal added that “it does not appear that an appropriate number of complaints have been referred to the OIG.”
Peter O’Rourke, the acting secretary of Veterans Affairs, who until recently headed the whistleblower protection office, fired back accusing the OIG of “abuse of authority” and mismanagement. O’Rourke said the OIG was “not performing its responsibilities in a fair and objective manner, which has caused significant harm to the reputation and performance of VA and its employees.”
Minnesota Democrat Tim Walz, a ranking member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, blasted O’Rourke’s letter to Missal, calling it intimidation and “not in the best interest of America’s veterans.”
In response to the dispute, VA spokesman Curt Cashour wrote that “giving the IG unfettered access to OAWP whistleblower case files could make whistleblowers vulnerable to retaliation, place a chilling effect on future disclosures and lead to the same sort of problems whistleblowers and the Office of Special Counsel have criticized the IG for in the past.”
Whether the VA can be fair and objective while investigating itself will be one key challenge for President Trump’s pick to lead the VA, nominee Robert Wilkie Jr., who faces confirmation hearings later this year.
Investigation Into The VA Reveals A Culture Of Retaliation Against Whistleblowers
Part 1: An Entrenched Culture Of Vicious Retaliation
June 20, 20186:39 PM ET
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs rely on its whistleblower protection office to investigate reports of mismanagement and abuse and fraud. This week, serious concerns about how that office handles complaints became public in a scathing letter written by the VA’s inspector general. Nearly 40 percent of all the whistleblower retaliation complaints across the federal government are from the VA – 40 percent. So to understand what’s going on, NPR’s Eric Westervelt investigated one VA district. It includes Alabama and Georgia. He uncovered an entrenched culture of often vicious retaliation where employees who raise concerns are silenced, isolated or removed. Here’s the first of his two reports.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Retired Colonel Cynthia Chavez (ph) has more than 40 years of combined Army and VA service, and she has outstanding performance reviews across both institutions. In June of 2014, she was hired to lead the VA’s Food and Nutrition Service in central Alabama. She soon found that both the Montgomery and Tuskegee hospital kitchens, especially Tuskegee’s, had some serious problems.
CYNTHIA CHAVEZ: I hadn’t been there two weeks when an employee came in to tell me about illegal activities in the kitchen. And he stopped right there and he said, but if you’re not going to do anything about it, I’m going to keep my mouth shut, otherwise I become the target.
WESTERVELT: Some employees, she says, routinely came in late and left early or didn’t show up at all. One, she says, would openly drink on the job. But that wasn’t the worst of it. Colonel Chavez was told by multiple co-workers that a longtime employee was running a side catering business out of the VA kitchen in Tuskegee.
CHAVEZ: Well, I was shocked. All the food that’s bought is from appropriated funds. Myself as a 30-year veteran, I couldn’t even eat there. It was just for the veterans that were being treated in the hospital.
WESTERVELT: Stealing food from veterans?
CHAVEZ: She was selling it through her catering business. And so when I did my due diligence, sure enough she couldn’t answer questions about how she had catered this event and yet she was on duty.
WESTERVELT: It was hard to tell just how much food had been stolen. Several co-workers told Chavez it’d been going on for years. One Valentine’s Day, she says, a case of steaks and cheesecakes meant for a special hospital vet meal went missing. Emails and other documents show that Colonel Chavez moved to suspend the woman and investigate. Soon after, she got her first of many anonymous threats – a letter slipped under her Tuskegee office door. Here’s Chavez reading part of one.
CHAVEZ: (Reading) This isn’t the Army where you had connections. This is the VA and we will get you.
WESTERVELT: Those were an anonymous threats, but formal complaints from the local union soon followed. The union voted no confidence in Chavez and her top boss, a career VA employee named Leslie Wiggins, soon told Chavez in no uncertain terms to back off. In fact, Wiggins eventually took charge of all discipline of kitchen workers there, citing what she called Colonel Chavez’s, quote, “inappropriate disciplinary actions.”
CHAVEZ: I am trying to hold employees accountable, and all I keep getting is pushback back through anonymous letters and even when HR would say, no, she’s justified in what she’s trying to do, they would not let me take any discipline against anything that the employees were doing.
WESTERVELT: Chavez was soon investigated for abuse of authority. She was reassigned and told not to talk with any of her employees or access any paperwork or files. She notified three federal offices that she was the target of whistleblower retaliation. So far, nothing has come of it. This past January, she was forced to resign or her boss said in an email you’ll be fired. The woman who was allegedly stealing food from veterans – she was allowed to retire with full benefits. There’s no indication she was ever disciplined. But here’s the thing – Chavez’s case is hardly an isolated one for Central Alabama’s VA. In VA district, or VISN, 7, retaliation is part of a well-documented pattern. Interviews with nearly 30 current and ex staffers backed up by emails, legal documents and data from the VA paint a picture of a toxic culture of intimidation and reprisals, a place where employees are routinely bullied, belittled and harassed if they raise any serious allegations.
According to data from the VA office set up to protect whistleblowers, VISN 7 has more whistleblower retaliation complaints per veteran served than any of the VA’s 20 other districts. They include allegations of retaliation, abuse of authority, gross mismanagement, gross waste of funds and other serious charges. But so far, no recent senior leader of VISN 7 has been held to account for what one current manager in Alabama who requested anonymity out of fear for her job calls a travesty of abusive leadership that’s akin to a mafia culture and what she says puts the care of veterans at risk.
JULIAN KASSNER: Toxic dysfunction and out of control is an understatement.
WESTERVELT: That’s Dr. Julian Kassner, a Navy trained physician and former lieutenant commander. Central Alabama VA hired him in 2016 to clean up a deeply troubled radiology department. The unit there had been embroiled in a 2014 scandal involving falsified records where some 2,000 X-rays of veterans went unread over a five-year period. He moved fast to clean up the department. His radiology co-workers liked that he was taking charge. He got a good performance review from his immediate boss. So Dr. Kassner was stunned when, like Colonel Chavez, he too was suddenly the target of an investigation.
KASSNER: I immediately sent a letter requesting clarification as to what exactly it is I’ve been accused of, along with an opportunity to respond. And I can tell you that in 10 months of being under investigation, I’ve never received an answer to that question.
WESTERVELT: Dr. Kassner was soon isolated in a remote room and told not to talk with colleagues or access documents. At first, when the retaliation began, he thought he was going crazy, but he wasn’t. Emails and audio show higher-ups really were out to get him. Here’s audio of a meeting between two HR officials in Montgomery and Dr. Randall Weaver, then the acting chief of staff at the hospital. In the audio, Dr. Weaver says he hopes Kassner quits because if he comes back from sick leave, higher-ups in Atlanta will surely find any way to get him.
RANDALL WEAVER: See; I mean, the thing for him is – because of his situation where they go – (unintelligible) will be after you again. No matter what you do, every time you sneeze wrong, they going to try to get you (ph).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes.
WESTERVELT: It’s a little hard to hear, but the doctor says higher-ups are likely to get Kassner even if you sneeze wrong.
WEAVER: And because of his personality, it’s easy to get stuff on him.
WESTERVELT: The doctor adds because of his brusque personality, quote, “it’s easy to get stuff on him,” meaning to get people to turn against him. That recording was made by Sheila Walsh, the head of Human Resources for the Central Alabama VA. She was allowed to tape meetings under a disability’s act accommodation. Walsh is a 20-year Army veteran. She stood up for Colonel Chavez, for Dr. Kassner and documents show for several other whistleblowers.
SHEILA WALSH: I went on the record saying I’m not going to participate in this level of corruption, illegal actions, and so I became the enemy.
WESTERVELT: The HR director was soon investigated herself for conduct unbecoming a federal employee and other charges. Both Linda Boyle, the senior manager in Alabama, and Leslie Wiggins, the head of the VA’s southeast district, refused multiple interview requests. A spokeswoman wrote “the VA does not tolerate retaliation. Any employee who feels he or she is experiencing retaliation should contact the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection” – end quote. But dozens we talked to for this story have filed complaints with the VA’s own whistleblower office. Months have passed, and they’ve received no help so far. In fact, this week, the VA’s Office of Inspector General accused the VA’s Whistleblower Protection office of refusing to turn over key information about the more than 150 complaints that office receives every month. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Montgomery, Ala.
Part 2: Can The VA Police Itself?
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
There is a deep divide within the Department of Veterans Affairs over how the agency handles whistleblowers, employees who report mismanagement, fraud, abuse. In several strongly worded letters released this week, the VA’s inspector general voiced concern that the VA office charged with protecting whistleblowers is failing to turn over key records. These are records that deal with roughly 170 employee retaliation complaints that come in each month. The VA’s acting secretary, Peter O’Rourke, fired back, accusing the inspector general’s office of abusing its authority. Watchdog groups are saying this dispute raises some serious questions about whether the VA can police itself. NPR’s Eric Westervelt has been investigating this. His focus this morning is on the VA’s actions in central Alabama.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: One of Donald Trump’s key campaign pledges was to do better by the 9 million veterans the VA serves in the wake of 2014 scandals involving atrocious wait times and inefficiencies that hospitals in Arizona, Alabama and elsewhere tried to cover up.
WESTERVELT: Just a few months into his term, President Trump signed a bill that aims to change that and to better shield VA employees who call out problems.
TRUMP: This bill protects whistleblowers who do the right thing. We want to reward, cherish and promote the many dedicated employees at the VA.
WESTERVELT: The Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act expanded the authority and support for the VA’s office that now shares the bill’s name. But almost a year later, there’s skepticism the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection is living up to its mission.
SHEILA MEUSE: We’ve got a very sick organization. The important thing is to squelch the whistleblowers, so to speak. It’s like shoot the messenger because it’s not the message we want to hear.
WESTERVELT: Sheila Meuse has more than 30 years of federal service at VA hospitals across the country. In those years, she rose from a clinician to, in 2014, briefly serving as the third in command of the VA’s Central Alabama Health Care System. Just four months into her new job in Alabama, Meuse helped expose unethical practices, part of that scandal that played in multiple VA hospitals across the country.
MEUSE: The first thing I blew the whistle on was initiating the fact-finding for the wait times issues that were brought to my attention in 2014.
WESTERVELT: Central Alabama was investigated back then by the Office of Inspector General, which confirmed it had some of the worst wait times in the country. But the scandal in Alabama also involved misconduct, negligence and cover up. Several thousand veteran X-rays were never read, and one VA employee in Tuskegee even took a veteran in recovery to a crack house and helped the veteran buy drugs. The employee even charged the VA several hundred dollars overtime to pay for the drug binge.
Meuse and her direct boss Richard Tremaine gave inspectors evidence that the then-director had known about cooking the patient wait time books and other mismanagement. That director, James Talton, was eventually fired in 2014 for neglect of duty. Yet lost in all that scandal was what happened to whistleblowers Tremaine and Meuse who helped expose all the wrongdoing.
MEUSE: We were excluded. We were yelled at. I was detailed to another facility. I was met by nothing but retaliation, resistance, shunning. It was just a horrible, horrible experience – totally a nightmare.
WESTERVELT: The Atlanta VA’s regional office launched a probe of Meuse and Tremaine. They were isolated and stripped of duties. Atlanta wanted to know if the two whistleblowers had behaved in a way, quote, “consistent with the VA’s core values.” Tremaine eventually took a VA management job in Colorado. Meuse quit and now sells real estate in Montgomery. How Meuse went from a whistleblowing hospital administrator to a real estate agent tells you a lot about how the VA deals with those who speak out. As we reported yesterday, the retaliation in central Alabama since Meuse and Tremaine were targeted appears to have only gotten worse. She’s one of dozens of current and former employees there we interviewed who detailed a toxic culture of retribution.
Workers say the retaliatory tactics run the gamut from sophomoric – a shift manager pouring salt into a subordinate’s coffee cup – to hard to fathom – isolation rooms used as psychological coercion. Meuse is not convinced the VA’s newly renamed and reorganized Office of Whistleblower Protection, or OAWP, can fix what she calls an abuse of ethos that runs deep in some parts of the agency.
MEUSE: I don’t think naming an office is how you fix an organizational culture that is really rancid and full of cronyism, favoritism, the old guard that takes care of themselves to maintain the status quo instead of really looking for folks that want the best for the veterans and the veterans’ health care.
WESTERVELT: Many watchdog groups agree. The complaints about Mr. Trump’s newly created office include that it’s understaffed and that investigations drag on with seemingly no end in sight. And this month, the VA’s own inspector general wrote a scathing letter to the acting VA secretary, charging that the Whistleblower Protection Office was failing to live up to its name by withholding cases and key information. The acting VA secretary pushed back, accusing the inspector general’s office of abuse of authority and mismanagement. Tom Devine with the nonprofit Government Accountability Project says his biggest problem with the OAWP is that it lacks enforcement bite.
TOM DEVINE: Until they get some enforcement teeth, all they’re going to be is background noise. And right now, the situation at the VA is by far the most intolerable in the government.
WESTERVELT: Central to the problem is that whistleblowers’ retaliation complaints can often land right back at the feet of the very people accused of doing the retaliation. In Alabama and Georgia, as we’ve reported, it’s a common tactic to open up a counter investigation of the worker who raises issues. That often includes nebulous charges the whistleblower is creating a hostile environment.
JACKIE GARRICK: I haven’t heard anyone tell me that when they’ve gone to this office of accountability that they’ve actually been assisted.
WESTERVELT: Jackie Garrick is founder of the nonprofit Whistleblowers of America. She says at least 80 percent of all cases that come into her office are from VA employees. Garrick says VA managers in some districts have weaponized counter investigations to slow down or thwart charges of wrongdoing. That tool and the circular firing squad nature of the VA investigating itself, Garrick says, raise questions about whether the OAWP can really protect VA workers who speak up.
GARRICK: You’ve got to be really careful when you start to bring in the VA people who work for the other VA people to do an investigation. That’s not going to be fair and objective. You’ve got too many incestuous cycles, and I think you need to break some of that.
WESTERVELT: How to break that will be a key challenge for Robert Wilkie, President Trump’s choice for VA secretary, if he’s confirmed to lead the nation’s second-largest bureaucracy. Eric Westervelt, NPR News.
Exclusive: ‘The VA is two-faced.’ Whistleblowers say managers are trying to silence them on veteran care
Donovan Slack, USA TODAY Published 6:11 a.m. ET June 22, 2019
Radiology technologist Jeff Dettbarn, alleges thousands of tests at the Iowa City VA were improperly canceled, potentially risking veterans’ lives. USA TODAY
WASHINGTON – Three Veterans Affairs health care professionals who reported patient care issues say the agency continues to try to silence them, jeopardizing veterans and undercutting a key Trump promise of whistleblower protection.
They work at different sites – in the Phoenix area, Baltimore, and Iowa City, Iowa – yet the VA response has been similar. All were stripped of assigned patient-care and oversight duties, and they suspect VA managers are retaliating against them for speaking out, and sidelining them to prevent them from discovering or disclosing any more problems with veteran health care.
In exclusive interviews with USA TODAY, their assertions contradict proclamations by agency leaders and President Donald Trump that VA employees who disclose wrongdoing at the agency are being celebrated and not scorned.
“The VA is two-faced: What it says it does and what it actually does are two entirely different things,” said Katherine Mitchell, a physician who reported shortfalls in care at the Phoenix VA that earned her a federal “Public Servant of the Year Award” in 2014.
Mitchell is scheduled to testify at a congressional hearing Tuesday examining the treatment of whistleblowers at the VA. She will be joined by Iowa City CT technologist Jeffrey Dettbarn, who blew the whistle on mass-cancellations of diagnostic test orders, and Baltimore VA psychologist Minu Aghevli, who reported veterans had been removed improperly from wait lists for opioid-addiction treatment.
Mitchell said the retaliation against her and others who speak out sends a signal to other employees to keep their mouths shut and “jeopardizes the health and safety of every veteran in the system.”
“Whistleblowers who are brave enough to report problems serve as a vital safety net for veterans,” she said. “If people can’t identify problems, veterans will suffer and die. That’s what it boils down to.”
Trump’s accountability order
Trump signed an executive order creating a VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection and then a law making it permanent in 2017. Early reviews were promising – within several months, the office had delayed disciplinary actions against 70 VA employees who disclosed alleged wrongdoing.
But the VA inspector general has since launched a wide-ranging investigation of the office’s handling of whistleblower cases and reports of problems.
The Government Accountability Office issued a report last July that said the office allowed officials accused of wrongdoing or retaliation to be involved in investigations of the accusations – calling into question their independence and findings. And leadership at the office has turned over multiple times, causing confusion and disruption.
In response to inquiries from USA TODAY, VA spokesman Randall Noller issued a statement Wednesday saying the agency “welcomes the inspector general’s oversight.”
“For the last several months, we’ve been cooperating closely with the IG on its assessment and encouraging the office to release its report as soon as possible,” he said.
An assistant secretary who took over the office in January, Tamara Bonzanto, plans to use its findings as a “roadmap” for improving office operations, Noller said. In the meantime, she has been “working on a number of key improvements.”
“These include providing timelier resolutions, more responsive recommendations and enhancing communications with whistleblowers,” he said.
Noller declined to say what policies are in place to ensure the office doesn’t allow managers accused of wrongdoing or retaliation to be involved in investigating the accusations. Noller also declined to comment on assertions made by Aghevli, Dettbarn and Mitchell, citing federal privacy laws.
Whistleblower advocates say they haven’t seen much difference in recent years. Jacqueline Garrick, founder of non-profit peer-support group Whistleblowers of America, said more than 190 VA employees have contacted her since 2017, complaining about retaliation for speaking out about problems at the agency, most about how veterans are treated.
She said those who have gone to the Trump-created whistleblower protection office for help said the office’s employees turned around and investigated them instead, launching “counter accusations and further retaliation.”
She said Bonzanto told her in February she planned to “reset” the office’s operations. Still, Garrick said, “I haven’t seen any real sign of that.”
She and other advocates also are slated to testify before Congress Tuesday at the hearing before the House VA Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations examining whistleblower concerns.
Backlogs and lists
In Iowa City, Dettbarn noticed something was awry in 2017 when patients showed up to get CT scans but orders for the tests had been cancelled in the computer system.
He reported the problems to administrators, who later admitted they had been mass-cancelling diagnostic test orders as part of a national effort to clear out a backlog of out-dated or duplicate orders.
Weeks after Dettbarn reported his concerns that orders had been cancelled without contacting patients or a medical review to determine if veterans still needed the tests, he was removed from his job and then transferred to another position, pending an investigation – of him.
He said he has been spending all day every day making copies and doing other paperwork ever since, nearly two years later. Dettbarn went to the whistleblower protection office for help, but said he didn’t hear back for months on end. “As far as I know, I’m still under investigation,” he said.
He wants to go back to caring for patients, and he worries about being away from the diagnostic clinic for so long.
“There’s nobody there to watch out for the veterans,” he said. “They’ve got everybody else scared to say anything. Who’s taking care of those patients?”
In Baltimore, Aghevli began reporting problems with wait lists five years ago, at the same time a national scandal unfolded about VA wait times following revelations that veterans died while they waited for care at the VA hospital in Phoenix.
Aghevli, coordinator of the opioid-addiction treatment program at the VA Maryland Health Care System, reported being pressured by supervisors to remove veterans from a wait list for treatment and schedule them in an “imaginary clinic” so the list would appear shorter.
“Suddenly our wait list went from being well over 100 to being minimal, I mean, well under 20,” she said.
A review of her allegations by the VA inspector general later concluded veterans were removed from the list and placed in “non-count” status, even though they still wanted opioid-addiction treatment at the Baltimore VA.
But Aghevli said she quickly became “unpopular” with supervisors who turned around in the ensuing years and investigated her repeatedly, tried to transfer her, and threatened to shut down her program – which serves roughly 400 veterans. She said they excluded her from meetings, changed her hours, and at one point, detailed her to clerical duties.
Through it all, she continued to report patient care problems when she came across them – including improper discharges, short-staffing and medication issues – to her supervisors, to the inspector general and to members of Congress.
“If I see somebody not getting adequate treatment, or not getting treatment that’s clinically indicated, I will speak up about it,” Aghevli said.
But she said she is still being retaliated against. In April, Baltimore VA officials once again moved her out of her job to a data entry post and stripped her of her clinical privileges, pending investigation. Aghevli said the reason they gave was that she had visited a veteran patient in a non-VA hospital after he had suffered a health crisis, a situation that ostensibly could give rise to charges she was practicing at a hospital where she didn’t work.
Aghevli called the explanation “nonsensical.” She is going public with her story for the first time. “I just am not sure what else to do,” she said.
She wants protections for whistleblowers expanded and strengthened. “I would like other people to not go through this,” she said. “It’s been really awful.”
Noller, the VA spokesman, declined to comment on her case as well as Dettbarn’s and Mitchell’s unless they signed waivers of their rights under federal privacy laws. Mitchell and Dettbarn declined, fearing further retaliation.
Aghevli’s lawyer, Kevin Owen, agreed on the condition the waiver be negotiated with VA general counsel. He said Friday that agency lawyers had not contacted him.
‘I will not back down’
In Gilbert, Arizona, Mitchell has endured more subtle retaliation.
After she reported poor training and inadequate triage at the emergency room at the Phoenix VA, she reached an agreement with VA officials to move to a new job assessing health care quality and efficiency at facilities in the region.
“I was hoping to improve patient care on a wider scale,” said Mitchell, who was a nurse before becoming a doctor.
But she said that, with very few exceptions, she hasn’t been allowed to perform those oversight duties. Mitchell has had to resort to helping veterans “under the table” – in some cases, receiving reports confidentially from VA employees, taking it upon herself to investigate, and then writing reports to regional administrators.
They included flagging poor care provided by a neurologist who was later removed, a facility’s failure to biopsy a potentially cancerous skin lesion and radiation oncology treatments delayed by short-staffing.
“They were not happy,” she said of administrators, but they didn’t stop her and facilities appeared to take actions to address the problems. Still, she said, VA employees told her they were “actively being discouraged from talking” to her.
Since 2018, Mitchell has been in charge of implementing an initiative to complement medical care with yoga, acupuncture and other methods to improve veterans’ health.
“They don’t want me involved in any patient safety problems – any problem of any significance, they want to keep me away from it,” she said.
Mitchell has asked another federal agency that helps whistleblowers for help, the Office of Special Counsel, and is speaking out again about problems in the meantime that she says are jeopardizing veterans.
“As a physician, nurse, and basically as a human being, I will not back down if someone’s health or safety is being threatened,” she said.