Lack of Accountability in VA Stems from Lack of Permanent Watchdog

WASHINGTON — “Why is retaliation so rampant within the federal government?” Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) asked in his opening remarks at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on improving accountability within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). 

“There is nothing more corrosive to an organization than when individuals within that organization get away with mismanagement (or) retaliation and they’re not held accountable,” Johnson said. 

Committee members heard first-hand accounts of such wrongdoing from VA whistleblowers during an emotionally charged hearing Tuesday that ran three hours. 

Sean Kirkpatrick, brother of Dr. Chris Kirkpatrick, a psychologist who committed suicide after he was fired from the Tomah VA Medical Center in 2009, was among those testifying. “It seems like the VA behaves as if it’s above the law,” Kirkpatrick said, thanking the committee members on behalf of his family for their work in trying to hold the VA accountable. “This committee is really the only entity out there that has taken my brother’s case seriously,” he said. 

Brandon Coleman, Joseph Colon and Shea Wilkes also testified — all of them whistleblowers who faced retaliation at different VA medical centers. They described being shunned, isolated, defamed, alone and desperate as a result of blatant retaliation by upper-level management. 

“It is a privilege to work for the VA, not a right,” testified Coleman, who worked as an addiction specialist at the Phoenix VA Health Care System. “All employees, including directors, must be held accountable.” 

The performance of the VA Office of Inspector General (VA OIG) was described as lackluster at best by witnesses Tuesday. The office has been without a permanent inspector general since December 2013 –  631 days as of the hearing. 

“We could line whistleblowers up from around this country, out this door and around this building and ask about the VA OIG,” Wilkes said. “The overwhelming majority would say the VA IG is a joke.” 

Linda Halliday, deputy inspector general of the VA OIG, blamed the size of office’s work force and its work load in her testimony. “The resources pale in comparison to VA’s massive decentralized and diverse facilities and the number of employees and the amount of funding needing regular oversight,” she told committee members. 

Representatives of the VA, the VA Inspector General and the Office of Special Counsel made up a second panel of witnesses, called to testify on policy solutions that address the issues raised by the first panel of whistleblowers. 

Dr. Carolyn Clancy, the chief medical officer for the VA, agreed with committee members and witnesses that the VA is taking too long to hold people accountable. 

Discipline is insufficient, said Carolyn Lerner, special counsel for the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), which handles retaliation cases across the government. She testified that 35 to 40 percent of her office’s entire retaliation case load comes from the VA alone. 

“The VA has a real cultural problem on its hands when it comes to whistleblower retaliation,” Johnson said afterward.“The most troubling aspect being that in the end, it’s the veterans who ultimately suffer when the courageous employees who expose wrongdoing are punished. This hearing highlighted the urgent need for a permanent watchdog in order to establish accountability on the part of all VA employees.” 

The chairman’s opening statement can be found here.

The full hearing video can be seen here.