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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.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: What happened was a national disgrace.
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.
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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.
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