Inside Trump’s brand-new VA office, moves to help whistleblowers draw praise

Dan Martin is actually chief engineer for Veterans Affairs hospitals in northern Indiana, yet he hasn’t done much engineering for almost a year — or much of anything for in which matter.

After he reported concerns about possible contracting improprieties at the hospitals, managers stripped him of his duties last March, alleging he had been mean in addition to used inappropriate language with his employees. They isolated him in an out-of the-way office in Marion, Ind., his lawyers say, in addition to in December, moved to fire him.

Such stories have been legendary for years at the VA, yet since President Trump created a whistleblower-protection office at the agency by executive order in April, the office has stepped in to help Martin in addition to more than 70 some other VA employees by delaying discipline against them until further investigation can be conducted.

the item’s unclear what the end results will be — the director of the office, Peter O’Rourke, told USA TODAY in an exclusive interview in which 41 of those cases remain open in addition to a “very tiny number” of the others were decided in favor of the employees.

The office, which has operated largely in secret until today, had a rocky start in addition to still faces staffing challenges in addition to deep skepticism among some whistleblowers in which the item will succeed inside the long run.

yet the early moves to help them are nonetheless drawing praise by longtime advocates who say they are unprecedented.

“There’s no agency inside the executive (branch) in which’s come close to providing temporary relief for over 70 people in less than a year,” said Tom Devine, who is actually legal director at the nonprofit Government Accountability Project in addition to has worked on federal whistleblower cases since 1979.

Devine, whose group is actually representing Martin in addition to a handful of some other alleged whistleblowers at the VA, said if only a fraction of cases are decided inside the employees’ favor, the item would certainly represent an improvement. He said whistleblowers historically get relief in only 2% to 5% of cases.

Since June, the VA Office of Accountability in addition to Whistleblower Protection has fielded more than 1,000 complaints about operations at the VA, according to statistics compiled by the office.

They included roughly 300 alleging employees had violated rules or laws, abused their authority or were engaged in mismanagement. In 28 some other cases, the office determined they involved threats to public health or safety. A total of 232 complaints alleged retaliation against whistleblowers for speaking out about problems.

O’Rourke, a member of Trump’s transition team who landed at the VA as part of his administration’s beachhead team at the agency, said he designed the office to take quick, decisive action on complaints in addition to track them until they are resolved.

They are triaged, investigated, in addition to if founded, shared with all levels of the agency, by headquarters in Washington to regional in addition to local officials inside the field.

“inside the past, people make a complaint, who knows who saw the item? Maybe the medical center saw the item, maybe they didn’t, maybe my supervisor never sent the item anywhere,” said O’Rourke, a Navy veteran in addition to former business consultant. “The process we have today, in which disclosure today gets visibility… so these things cannot be hidden.”

He said the identities of employees reporting wrongdoing are kept secret unless the employees give permission to reveal them. In cases of retaliation, he said in which permission may be necessary to fully vet the complaints.

The office has faced some challenges in which have drawn sharp criticism in addition to fueled skepticism in which the item will be different by previous initiatives in which failed to fix problems at the agency in addition to protect whistleblowers.

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The office inherited many employees in addition to cases by the today-defunct VA Office of Accountability Review, an Obama-era effort in which targeted senior leaders for discipline yet in which some whistleblowers viewed as ineffective.

in which meant some complainants received emails about their cases by an investigator at the Obama-era office one month in addition to then by the same investigator at the brand-new Trump whistleblower office a few weeks later, sowing doubt in which the item was a brand-new office at all.

O’Rourke also interviewed a prominent whistleblower, Katherine Mitchell, a physician who has testified before Congress about threats to patient care at the Phoenix VA in addition to is actually well-connected to dozens of VA whistleblowers. She said he offered her a position at the brand-new office in August yet then reversed himself in a two-sentence email in October in addition to hasn’t responded since.

Mitchell also hasn’t seen any progress on a case she filed with the office alleging she is actually still suffering retaliation because the agency has not allowed her to perform duties related to specialty care contained her job description. She is actually today working in a regional office performing unrelated tasks, including reviewing in addition to distributing policies by headquarters.

“As far as I can tell, they’re not doing anything substantially beneficial for anyone,” Mitchell told USA TODAY. “I’ve not heard anybody say in which the office of whistleblower protection has helped them at all.”

Those sentiments were echoed by others, including Shea Wilkes, a social worker who exposed problems with wait lists at the VA in Shreveport, La., in addition to co-founder of a national group of whistleblowers, VA Truth Tellers.

“Most of us are trying to figure out what exactly the Office of Accountability & Whistleblower Protection does,” Wilkes said in an email.

To some degree, in which’s because the office has operated in virtual secret. O’Rourke has never participated in a media interview before, the number of whistleblowers the office has helped was not public, nor was Martin’s or some other cases.

The VA says the item is actually still working on Mitchell’s case, trying to match her having a position in which meets her needs. The agency contends she wasn’t officially offered a job with the brand-new whistleblower office, in addition to she turned down an offer in October to work in a VA ethics office.

O’Rourke concedes not everything has been smooth sailing. The office is actually still staffing up. Currently, the item has only 65 of the roughly 100 employees expected. in addition to he said many of the complaints received so far have not been fully vetted or addressed.

“We’re kind of building the airplane as we fly the item, is actually the analogy in which’s been used quite a bit,” O’Rourke said.

One of the most high-profile moves he made was hiring a different whistleblower by the Phoenix VA, Brandon Coleman, in addition to tasking him with outreach.

Coleman, who suffered retaliation in Phoenix after he disclosed poor treatment of suicidal veterans, started out work at the office in August in addition to said he has seen first-hand the progress the item has made, both in uncovering problems with veteran care in addition to in forestalling disciplinary actions against whistleblowers.

“I was here when we did one of our first holds, in addition to the item brought a tear to my eye because in which didn’t exist when I was going through my stuff,” Coleman said in an interview.

O’Rourke said Coleman provides valuable insight on cases in addition to policies by a whistleblower’s perspective.

“I thought the item was just a no brainer to have a subject-matter expert on the field in which I’m supposedly managing be able to tell me when I’m full of crap or not,” he said. “There’s not much in which we do in which he doesn’t at least get to have an opinion about.”

For many inside the whistleblower community, though, the item’s too soon to tell if the office will be a success.

Representatives of the Office of Special Counsel, which has been working regularly with the office on whistleblower cases, in addition to the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit in which works with whistleblowers, both said they are reserving judgment.

“The jury’s still out on the office,” said Nick Schwellenbach, director of investigations at POGO. “…I have heard almost nothing about what the item’s concretely doing to protect whistleblowers, doing the VA a culture where employees feel comfortable raising concerns, in addition to improving the quality of VA healthcare.”

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