VA Settles Three More Whistleblower Retaliation Cases

Whistleblowers tried to report sexual harassment, data manipulation, questionable medical practices

Carolyn Lerner, OSC special counsel / AP
April 9, 2015

VA whistleblowers who tried to report sexual harassment, data manipulation, and questionable medical practices were threatened with suspensions, moved to a basement offices, and in one case denied leave to care for a terminally ill parent, according to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC).

The OSC announced Thursday that it had reached settlement agreements with the Department of Veterans Affairs in three cases of retaliation against VA whistleblowers.

In one case, Phillip Brian Turner, a scheduling clerk at a VA behavioral health clinic in San Antonio, Texas, blew the whistle on manipulation of wait times last year after his supervisors first ignored, then ordered him to stop emailing them. VA officials also attempted to force him to sign copies of the VA’s media policy.

In an interview with the San Antonio Express-News, a senior manager said Turner had retracted his claims, even though he denied making any retractions.

The OSC said it intervened "because of the chilling effect the VA’s actions could have on whistleblowers’ willingness to raise concerns publicly." The case was resolved in February, and the OSC said the VA has agreed to several corrective actions.

In another 2014 case, Debora Casados, a nurse in the VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System, reported that a coworker sexually assaulted two other VA staff members and made inappropriate comments to her.

According to OSC, the hospital’s human resources office told Casados and the other staff that they were not allowed to discuss the allegations and threatened them with disciplinary action. Casados was then removed from nursing duties and reassigned to a windowless basement office to scan documents. She was also denied leave to care for her terminally ill mother.

On April 3, the VA returned Casados to her nursing duties at another clinic while OSC further investigates her claims.

In the third case, Charles Johnson, a technologist in the radiology department at the VA Medical Center in Columbia, South Carolina, was hit with a proposed suspension in 2014 after he questioned the methods of a doctor. The proposed suspension was issued by the same doctor. In February, the VA agreed to rescind the proposed suspension and evaluate the method in question.

Since a national scandal erupted last year after it was revealed that VA hospitals were manipulating data to hide the long wait times faced by veterans, dozens of whistleblowers have come forward saying they tried to report misconduct but faced reprisals from management.

The Office of Special Counsel is an independent agency that investigates allegations of whistleblower retaliation and improper personnel practices in the federal government.

According to OSC, it has obtained relief for more than 45 VA employees who filed whistleblower retaliation complaints since fiscal year 2014, and it said it is on track to resolve double that amount by the end of fiscal year 2015.

"Retaliation against whistleblowers is unacceptable. VA employees who bring potential risks to light should be rewarded not shunned," Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said in a statement. "The VA’s willingness to protect these employees after the fact is encouraging. In particular, the efforts of VA’s leadership have improved OSC’s ability to secure relief for whistleblowers. However, more work needs to be done at the facility level to prevent this type of retaliation from occurring in the first place."

The VA did not immediately return a request for comment.