Department-of-veterans-affairs-buldingA report recently issued by the U.S Government Accountability Office (GAO) finds that Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) whistleblowers face high rates of disciplinary action and dismissal after filing reports of wrongdoing, when compared to their peers.

Some of the findings of the report include:

  • The VA whistleblower does not always have the required documents for adjudication of complaints, indicating that employees may not have received due process.
  • Whistleblowers were 10 times more likely than their peers to receive disciplinary action within a year of reporting.
  • 66% of VA employees who filed a formal complaint did not work for the VA after one year.
  • Senior VA officials accused of misconduct and found guilty often received reduced punishment or none at all.

These findings corroborate what VA whistleblowers have said for years—that they often become the targets of retaliation after blowing the whistle, and that VA officials often receive undo leniency in their punishment (if they receive any) when found guilty of misconduct.

In a letter of response, the Department of Veterans Affairs agreed with nine of the report’s 16 recommendations, and partially concurred with five. The VA Office of Inspector General addressed two other recommendations, partially concurring with one and concurring with the second.

It is ironic that an institution established to assist those who have served on behalf of the U.S. is also one that has such a troubling track record of retaliation. The GAO report’s findings have revealed the extent to which the VA has not only perpetuated, but also fostered, a hostile work environment. Its failure to properly and systematically document disciplinary actions in the VA highlights a culture of carelessness or, perhaps more troubling, of covering up misconduct. The fact that managers were assigned to investigate their own wrongdoing is absurd.

“Veterans deserve the best care. The harassment, intimidation and retaliation against VA whistleblowers is notorious, and major reforms are still needed,” stated Stephen M. Kohn, executive director of the National Whistleblower Center.

It is essential that federal employees’ rights to blow the whistle are protected. While the adoption of the GAO’s recommendations is critical, it is not enough. Bureaucratic change is the first step, but the VA as an institution also must undergo a cultural change. Whistleblowers must be seen as allies and assets in fighting institutional mismanagement. Whistleblowers have been saying this for years. It is time for the public to join them in support.