A VA office intended to hold leaders accountable advised action against 7 in 2 years

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By Connecting Vets

A Department of Veterans Affairs office of accountability, established by President Donald Trump and touted as one of his hallmark efforts to help veterans and improve the massive federal agency, has recommended action against seven leaders in the last two years, a recent report shows.

The VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP) was intended to find and investigate incidents of bad leadership at the department, making recommendations for personnel actions. That office has received thousands of complaints against VA leaders since it was established. Over the course of two years, the office investigated 389 of those complaints and recommended action against seven staffers in leadership roles. 

In the OAWP's annual report to Congress this week, officials detailed investigations into allegations of misconduct and whistleblower retaliation linked to seven leaders. The report covers OAWP's efforts from October 2018 until May 2020. 

The president established the OAWP in 2017, part of a vow to clean up VA, including making it easier to remove problematic staff. The office is an accomplishment Trump has routinely promoted, along with varying counts of the thousands of VA employees removed by the office. But many of those staffers have been lower-level VA employees and few have been leaders. 

The office has faced significant criticism in the past year. In October 2019, the VA Inspector General released a report calling OAWP a failure in its mission to protect whistleblowers. Whistleblowers alerted Congress that the office had not only failed to protect them but that in some cases, it retaliated against the people it was meant to shield. An Inspector General investigation and report released last year largely substantiated those allegations, showing the office conducted subpar investigations, had no standard operating procedure and may have actively targeted at least one whistleblower.

The office did, however, create a draft plan to more than double the number of executives it has, from nine to 19. 

Of the 3,463 complaints OAWP received from October 2018 to May of this year, the office decided that 389 fell under its jurisdiction. Of those, OAWP investigators found evidence supporting allegations against seven and recommended that all be disciplined. 

The seven leaders were not specifically named in the report, but investigators shared details about four of the cases. 

In the first case, OAWP recommended a VA medical center chief of staff be demoted because they failed to "separate an employee from an alleged sexual harasser." Medical center leaders did demote the chief of staff based on OAWP's recommendation.

A VA hospital supervisor retaliated against a whistleblower, recommending that they be fired, another OAWP investigation revealed, but the supervisor left their VA position before action could be taken against them. 

In another case, another VA hospital chief of staff shut down a surgery center without making sure veteran patients had another option for care elsewhere. OAWP ruled that the chief of staff neglected their duties and potentially endangered those veterans and recommended that the chief of staff be suspended. Hospital leaders did not follow that recommendation.

Two senior executives were removed because of discrimination substantiated by an OAWP investigation. 

The report did not include full details on all seven employees, whether disciplinary actions were taken against all of them or what those actions may have been.

Though the office has faced criticism from whistleblowers, veterans, lawmakers and advocates in recent years, the president and his supporters and appointees, including VA Secretary Robert Wilkie and his executive leadership staff, continue to promote it as a landmark accomplishment for the administration. 

Tamara Bonzanto, appointed director of the OAWP in January 2019, said in the report that her office has "undergone a radical transformation" including new policies, better investigations and more training and accountability. "One theme is constant: accountability in VA matters," she wrote. 

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Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.
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