OIG Identifies ‘Significant Deficiencies’ Within VA Whistleblower Office

In a report released last week, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) identifies significant, across the board failures within the VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP). The OIG found that OAWP failed to conduct unbiased investigations of VA executives and managers, used untrained staff to conduct its investigations, failed to conduct thorough fact findings, and placed whistleblowers in greater harm for having engaged in whistleblowing to the office.

The office was established in 2017 as a result of the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act. The report covers OAWP’s performance from June 2018 to December 2018. Additional allegations against the office arose later in 2019, prompting the report to include work through August 2019.

In the investigations that OAWP conducted, the OIG found the office lacked comprehensive written policies and procedures on any topic. Staff was also not properly trained on conducting investigations.

“The lack of clear written guidance for OAWP personnel contributed to the failure to consistently conduct investigations that were procedurally sound, accurate, thorough, and unbiased. Moreover, the OAWP Investigations Division was primarily staffed with human resources specialists whose position descriptions did not require extensive investigative training or experience. This deficiency was aggravated by the OAWP’s failure to provide sufficient training on such critical topics as interviewing witnesses, conducting investigations, and writing reports,” the report laments.

The Accountability Act also lowered the standard of proof required to hold employees accountable. The report found that OAWP used this lower burden to find only enough evidence to hold an employee accountable rather than enough evidence to fully understand the situation. One disciplinary official discussed in the report described OAWP investigations as “a [disciplinary] action in search of evidence.”

Bill Valdez, President of the Senior Executives Association (SEA) responded to this discovery in the report in a press release, “Realizing that VA executives possess limited rights, OAWP officials chose to pursue biased and unbalanced investigations knowing executives would be unable to adequately defend themselves - even going as far as deliberately withholding evidence of innocence. Rather than pursuing accountability and protection, VA executives and managers were subject to selective accountability, bullied and intimidated into pursuing more severe actions than what the evidence supported, and lacked protection against OAWP attacks.”

The report further finds that OAWP failed to establish sufficient safeguards for whistleblowers to prevent retaliation. OAWP officials also appeared to have a lack of respect for individuals they deemed “career” whistleblowers.

The report also found that OAWP misinterpreted their statutory authority both by accepting matters that it should not have investigated and declining matters that the Act required it to investigate. OAWP also failed to refer matters outside their scope of investigation to proper authorities.

For example, the report explains that OAWP is required to refer serious criminal violations to the OIG. Instead, OAWP sometimes chose to investigate these matters and draw conclusions on their own.

OAWP also displayed “significant shortcomings” in meeting other statutory requirements for the office, such as revising supervisor performance plans and implementing whistleblower protection training for all employees.

The report made 22 recommendations for the agency and the office, which is under new leadership since the report’s timeframe. The new leadership was largely agreeable to the recommendations made.

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