Managers at Veterans Affairs hospitals in four states underwent whistleblower training Monday after a Daily Wire story outlined how a facility in Pennsylvania tried to stop employees from talking to federal investigators regarding wrongdoing.
The House Committee on Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Office of Special Counsel are also questioning why the Altoona VA Medical Center would send an email to employees ordering them “not to respond to a subpoena for testimony and/or provide any agency document …”
The hospital has been plagued by numerous allegations of wrongdoing brought by whistleblowers, including a secret wait list of 400 patients that may have resulted in seven deaths.
“In order to bring wholesale reform to the Department of Veterans Affairs, we must ensure that VA employees are not restricted from engaging in their legal right to freely communicate with Congress should they choose to do so,” wrote VA Committee Chairman Phil Roe (R-TN).
“As Chairman, conducting effective oversight of VA is one of my highest priorities, which is why my staff requested that the Altoona VA’s leadership clarify to its staff that the facility’s email was in no way intended to inhibit employees’ rights to speak to Congress or other relevant entities,” Roe said.
The Special Counsel — which investigates whistleblower complaints and reports directly to the president — took the highly-unusual step last week of inviting Altoona whistleblower James DeNofrio to file a complaint. The OSC does not self-generate cases.
“Please note that OSC may open a new complaint for you regarding this matter if you give consent to do so,” OSC attorney Noah Fortinsky wrote in an email.
VA Secretary David Shulkin did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
It is unlawful for federal employers to interfere with workers seeking to report wrongdoing. Both 5 U.S. Code 2302 and the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2012 detail the rights and obligations of employees to report illegalities and mismanagement.
Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and Ohio have a total of nine VA hospitals, which encompass the agency’s fourth district. Approximately 1,200 managers from this district were invited by email to attend Monday’s whistleblower training comprised of a conference call with VA attorneys, an online slide show, and a question and answer period, according to an employee who did not want to be named.
The invitation, titled “A Manager’s Guide to Whistleblowing,” said the training will answer questions like “what is a protected disclosure/protected activity, what is whistleblower retaliation, and how supervisors can continue to manage employees that have ‘blown’ the whistle.’”
The slides included:
- A wallet card with 13 “Prohibited Personnel Practices,” which includes retaliating against whistleblowers
- A detailed explanation of the OSC’s role
- Tips on how to “keep your cool,” work with “thorn in your side” employees, and deal with situations involving “horrible lies”
- The legalities of whistleblowing
DeNofrio found himself in an adversarial position with Altoona upper management after he complained to the VA Inspector General about the secret wait list, and how a doctor allegedly worked while impaired and though failing his physician credentialing standards was still allowed to see patients from 2013 to 2015.
As reprisal, VA managers uploaded more than 5,000 pages of his veteran medical record and Social Security file onto a public server, then advised him that he was a target for identity theft, according to memos reviewed by The Daily Wire.
DeNofrio’s plea for help from the Special Counsel was stonewalled, yet last week he received notice that it would be resurrected in light of Altoona’s “do not respond” memo.
“I appreciate the continued support of Congressman Roe and the House Veterans Affairs Committee. To date Altoona VA staff have not received clarification on the memo directing us not to cooperate with investigations or subpoenas despite Congressional intervention,” DeNofrio said. “VA senior officials seem to believe they are above the law and beyond accountability as whistleblower retaliation continues unchecked. If the VA is serious about reform then fire the VA bullies and rotten apples in addition to actually prosecuting VA officials involved in alleged criminal conduct instead of allowing them to quietly transfer or retire.”