MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A new report alleges the agency created to investigate whistleblower complaints at the VA botched investigations and did not protect the whistle-blowers.
The Office of the Inspector General for the Office of Accountability & Whistleblower Protection released a 100-page report on the failures of the office of accountability and whistleblower protection.
After the release of this report, FOX13 began investigating similar claims at the Memphis VA and found whistleblowers have been reporting retaliation for decades.
The question is, will anything change?
"I served in the United States Air Force four years, six months, 29 days," said Pedrick Thompson Sr., an employee at Memphis VA.
“Our nation wouldn’t exist without the veteran population,” echoed another whistleblower who wished to remain anonymous.
FOX13 spoke to three men, two of which are veterans. Each of them has blown the whistle on their employer; the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.
“I started blowing the whistle on the Memphis VA back in 2005 when I started working there," said Sean C. Higgins.
“By me being a whistleblower, I’m constantly being attacked,” said Thompson.
In 2017 President Trump created the VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, or OAWP, by executive order.
The OAWP, he said, was meant to protect whistle-blowers at the VA.
But according to a VA Inspector General report, the "OAWP acted in ways that were inconsistent with its statutory authority while it simultaneously floundered in its mission to protect whistleblowers."
According to the 100-page report, among dozens of other allegations, the OAWP:
- “did not properly protect whistleblower identities”
- “declined matters the Act required it investigate”
- “failed to refer matters for investigation to other more appropriate investigative entities”
“It was a plan set for disaster. That’s why they want us to come out, so they can identify us; the whistleblowers, then they can take the action necessary to counter attack,” Thompson explained.
He has been a motor vehicle operator at the Memphis VA for 11 years.
His issues began in 2008 when he beat the hospital in a case about his pay.
He tells us he's been retaliated against ever since.
“I had to defend myself, but I defended myself with pen and paper. Pen and paper always prevail.”
According to the Inspector General's report, the OAWP was created to help whistleblowers like Thompson get a fair shake, but according to its own findings, 2,500 cases were referred to other VA offices that were not equipped to undertake such investigations.
“The local VA was allowed to investigate themselves. Essentially, the bank robbers were allowed to investigate the bank robbery,” the anonymous whistleblower told us. He was an employee at Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System for decades.
When his reports to the OAWP about deleted patient appointments were going nowhere, he reached out to us for help.
After we started asking questions, investigators turned up at the Central Arkansas VA, but according to the whistleblower, they didn't review any of the pertinent evidence, and didn't speak with him directly.
The IG report says those investigators, "too narrowly interpreted the scope of what the office should investigate," adding the investigations were often one-sided.
“They never looked in the electronic chart, knowing and fearful of what they would find,” the whistleblower said.
According to the Inspector General, "OAWP personnel did not take sufficient steps to protect complainants’ identities and prevent their concerns from being sent to the very facilities or network offices where the complainant worked."
"The police can't police themselves," said Sean Higgins.
He gained national recognition as a whistleblower when he and FOX13 exposed a series of violations at the Memphis VA in 2015.
"They give your name to the same people you're reporting," Higgins explained.
Both Thompson and Higgins said the problems start at the top.
“What’s going on in the presidential situation right now. They want to know who the whistleblower is. They’re doing everything possible to know who this whistleblower is," said Thompson, regarding President Trump’s efforts to out the whistleblower that exposed his phone call with Ukraine’s president that ultimately resulted in his impeachment.
“I would like for senior leadership to be changed. It’s problematic. They’re running together in this network of comradery,” Thompson added.
However, according to the report, as of May only one covered executive had been removed from federal service under the act.
The whistleblowers told FOX13 despite this report, they don’t think things will change at the Memphis VA or any others.
The Inspector General issued 22 recommendations including additional training and staffing. There was no mention of reopening closed investigations.
Higgins said he thinks these cases should be re-investigated.
FOX13 reached out to Willie Logan, the spokesperson for the Memphis VA and received an email response, not from Memphis VA, but from a Public Affairs specialist in Atlanta.
It read: "The department encourages employees to identify problems and will not tolerate any efforts to retaliate against those individuals."
Adding, "Identifying as a whistleblower doesn’t automatically give credence to someone’s claims nor does it shield them from accountability when they have failed to uphold VA’s values."
They pointed us to the IG report for an official response and said on the advice of counsel, couldn't comment further, due to pending litigation.
Since we provided Memphis VA with the names of the whistleblowers we interviewed for this story, so they could prepare a comment, Pedrick Thompson was demoted to desk duty pending an investigation.
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