Blowing the whistle on wrongdoing at the Department of Veterans Affairs can mean risking everything from losing a job to losing the respect of co-workers. But in fighting whistleblower retaliation today, the Office of Special Counsel hopes future whistleblowers will come forward without fear of punishment.
Eric Bachman, OSC deputy special counsel for litigation and legal affairs, said that the agency’s success in restoring jobs and back pay to 25 whistleblowers has helped get the word out to workers who know about workplace wrongdoing, but don’t know where to go.
“These folks who blow the whistle and face retaliation, they often see their careers and their professional development halted, and their relationships with their coworkers sour. And that’s why this can be a difficult and often risky decision to blow the whistle.”
Since April 2014, when the first reports of wrongdoing at a Phoenix, Arizona VA medical center came to light, Bachman said his office has received 175 cases of VA workers blowing the whistle on issues of patient health and safety. Of those, 150 remain in the pipeline, waiting to be investigated, closed, or settled with the VA.
“We’ve been inundated with complaints. And the complaints from VA employees run the gamut, but as I mentioned, we really try to prioritize complaints that involve dangers to patient health and safety,” Bachman said. “I think word has gotten out to federal employees that we are an effective tool for them to use where they want to disclose wrongdoing or where they believe they’ve been retaliated against for disclosing wrongdoing.”
Under a recently proposed rule, contracting whistleblowers would also be able to submit their disclosures to OSC.
While OSC works on behalf of whistleblowers, discipling the managers who punishment them is mostly headed up by VA.
“We’re encouraged that the VA is considering whistleblower retaliation when it makes disciplinary decisions against higher level officials. So, if there’s evidence that an official has retaliated against a whistleblower, the VA is taking that into account when it decides whether to discipline them, and what the discipline should be,” Bachman said. “We will seek discipline when we believe it’s appropriate and where our efforts are not going to be duplicating the efforts of the VA and their investigation.”