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VA Inspector General Says Department Is Putting Whistleblowers At Risk

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now to a story about whistleblowers - not that whistleblower. The Department of Veterans Affairs gets the largest number of whistleblower complaints of any federal agency. It's a problem President Trump addressed early in his presidency with a law to protect whistleblowers and get rid of bad employees at the VA. Many times, when he gets in front of a crowd, President Trump touts this legislation. Here he is in 2017.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It's called the Veterans Accountability Act, and now you can say, you're fired.

SHAPIRO: A report today from the VA's own inspector general says the VA's Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection has not provided much of either. Here to tell us more is NPR's Quil Lawrence, who covers veterans.

Hi, Quil.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So the president signed legislation establishing this office of accountability and whistleblower protection. Explain why the VA needed the office and what it was supposed to do.

LAWRENCE: The push for this really began way back in 2014, after there was a nationwide scandal about vets waiting too long for care and some people - some VA officials manipulating their stats on that. It turned out even with those scandals, it was very hard to fire people, and there had been a push ever since to try and make it easier to get rid of poorly performing staff at VA. And our own reporting has shown that there's a huge number of whistleblower complaints within the VA. It's the highest number of any federal agency, so this office was set up two years ago to address that.

SHAPIRO: So according to today's inspector general report, the office has not fired many senior officials, did not protect whistleblowers and, in fact, may have even retaliated against whistleblowers.

LAWRENCE: Right. I mean, this report was really harsh. It said that the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection acted inconsistent with its authority and floundered in its mission to protect whistleblowers. Those are quotes. Whistleblowers, as you know, are - they're federal employees who sort of raise their hands and step forward to point out abuse or waste. And this report said that this office never trained their staff on handling whistleblower complaints or trained them in investigations, so they would sometimes look into these things and never really look at the other side of the story. The report said there were sometimes disciplinary actions in search of evidence. They had no procedures to protect these whistleblowers when they looked into them, and in one case, it seemed they even investigated the whistleblower in what looked pretty much like retaliation for him blowing the whistle.

SHAPIRO: What has the reaction from veterans been today?

LAWRENCE: I spoke with one VA employee who's a whistleblower. He's an Army vet, and he's been making this claim for quite some time that this office was compromising the identities of whistleblowers.

JAMES DENOFRIO: It's vindication. This has been two years of saying that the office is - was presidential appointees coming after federal employees to keep us quiet, to silence and target whistleblowers. And the report - from what I've seen in the findings, that's what it's stating.

LAWRENCE: That was James DeNofrio, I should have said. And he said he'd heard from other whistleblowers saying that there'd been this chilling effect that they were afraid to come forward because they thought that this office would target them. And I should say DeNofrio's original whistleblower complaint was not about someone stealing cookies from the cafeteria. It was about a VA physician who was no longer fit to treat vets. So we're talking about real harm here.

SHAPIRO: What has the response from the VA been?

LAWRENCE: Well, the VA said that this report mostly deals with actions that were taken under the previous leadership. Now, not the previous administration - it was the previous leadership that was appointed by President Trump. That leadership has been replaced, and they've been under new management since January. The VA also said that in this time, in those two years, the VA has taken action to get rid of poorly performing staff. They say that they've fired over 8,600 staff in those two years. Now, that is out of a VA staff of over 340,000. There's some dispute about how much of an increase that is over the normal churn at the VA, and the IG - the inspector general's report had said that only one of the people that they fired was a senior leader. It's been suggested that a lot of the other people were lower-level staff, like janitors, who were getting fired by this law.

And I should add just briefly that NPR has been reporting on whistleblowers at the VA, and we had been looking into these allegations with a Freedom of Information Act request, which wasn't answered. That's now in federal court. This report may have answered some of those questions, though, that we were trying to get to the bottom of.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Quil Lawrence, who covers Veterans Affairs.

Thank you very much.

LAWRENCE: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.