Two years after President Donald Trump ordered the creation of an office within the Department of Veterans Affairs to protect whistleblowers, that office was found not only to have failed its mission but, in some cases, it retaliated against the people it was meant to shield.
At a House Veterans Affairs Committee oversight hearing Tuesday, members of Congress heard how, two years after the office was established, it still lacks the most basic features, including standard operating procedures and staff training.
What the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP) has accomplished is draft a plan to more than double the number of leadership jobs it has, from nine to 19.
Congress asked for an investigation into OAWP a year after it was founded because of allegations against the office. Whistleblowers have been telling Congress in public hearings for months that OAWP was harming them.
Tuesday marked the third in a series of whistleblower hearings the committee has held since the start of the year. But it was the first hearing held in the wake of an Inspector General report that substantiated many of those whistleblower allegations
“We know now the situation was even worse than we believed,” Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Mich., said. “This report leaves no doubt.”
OAWP “failed” and “floundered” in its mission to protect whistleblowers, conducted subpar investigations, failed to interview whistleblowers about their allegations and more, the report said. There was even evidence that the office actively targeted at least one whistleblower.
At Tuesday’s hearing, members of Congress told OAWP Assistant Secretary Tamara Bonzanto they were frustrated by the office’s failings and by the lack of progress.
“I do not have confidence in this office,” Chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., said. “I cannot in good conscience direct (whistleblowers) to work with your office. That’s not going to change until I actually see some real progress.”
When asked by Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., if the culture has changed at OAWP the Inspector General and Bonzanto had very different answers.
“We did not find that during the investigation,” Inspector General Michael Missal said. “We’re going to take another look.”
“That culture now exists,” Bonzanto said. “I’m working on improving it.”
The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) made 22 recommendations as part of its report. So far, none of them have been closed and OAWP has only provided a “framework” for change, Missal said.
“We’re a long time into this,” Bost said. “The public … wants it fixed. We need to know you’re doing everything you can as fast as you can. We want it right, but we also want it quickly.”
Bonzanto, who took over the office earlier this year, repeated that she was working to make changes, but that change takes time and a lack of leadership was slowing progress.
Standard operating procedures are expected to be in place by the end of this year, Bonzanto said, but it’s unclear when the office will resume investigations.
Bergman said it seems like OAWP has made so little progress because it started off its work in the negative.
“Progress that was made was to clean up messes and get the ball rolling in the right direction,” he said.
“This report clearly shows that the current leadership still has not fixed, or even admitted, the ongoing failures of the office,” Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H. said. “Major failures continue to this day. That inability to admit failure is also part of the problem we face … This is simply unacceptable.”
Separately on Tuesday, Senate Veterans Affairs Committee leaders met with VA. Democrats in the minority on the committee, led by Ranking Member Rep. Jon Tester, D-Mont., also sent a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie saying they are "alarmed by the findings" in the OIG report and "the functions of this office are too important to the employees that work at VA, and consequently, the veterans they serve, to let them go unaddressed any longer."