The office created under the Trump administration to protect whistleblowers in the Department of Veterans Affairs is doing the opposite by putting whistleblowers at risk, according to a report released on Thursday by the agency's inspector general.
According to the blistering report, the office failed to push out poorly performing senior officials, did not conduct accurate or unbiased investigations and may not have protected identities of people who reported waste or harm to veterans.
The Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection was established to make it easier and safer to blow the whistle on wasteful spending or abuse at Veterans Affairs, but the report found "significant deficiencies" in carrying out its central objective.
"The very office established to protect whistleblowers and enhance accountability lacked the basic structures needed to achieve its core mission," according to the report.
Reform among top officials at Veteran Affairs has been a central focus of the agency since Eric Shinseki resigned as secretary in 2014 amid a scandal over how the agency allegedly hid the monthslong wait times veterans faced when seeking medical care. The report is expected to play into the hands of critics of Trump, who made veterans issues and overhauling Veteran Affairs a key plank of his presidential run in 2016. In recent months, the department has been beset by vacancies, leadership turnover and allegations of poor care.
Criticism directed at the whistleblower office in the report is no less harsh.
In its first two years the whistle blower office was operational, the office "floundered in its mission to protect whistleblowers," in part by creating "an office culture that was sometimes alienating to the very individuals it was meant to protect," the report states.
An NPR investigation published last year revealed how VA whistleblowers confronted an entrenched management culture that routinely used fear and intimidation to prevent potential whistleblowers from talking.
The 91-page document released Thursday adds new detail to problem, describing poor leadership, lackluster training and investigations that undercut the confidence of whistleblowers who attempted to clean up the agency.
"This is particularly important given that individuals' reputations are at stake, whistleblowers' identities must be protected, and the issues on which the OAWP is reporting affect veterans' lives in tremendously significant ways," according to the report.
The office, the report says, would only open a case if a whistleblower was willing to reveal his or her identity, which created a chilling effect on future whistleblowers who feared reprisal if their name was attached to a complaint.
At least once, individuals attempting to raise concerns about senior managers found themselves the target of a probe by the office.
"One troubling instance involved the OAWP initiating an investigation that could itself be considered retaliatory," the report found.
James DeNofrio, a VA whistleblower who says he was targeted for trying to expose a physician who he says should not have been allowed to see patients, applauded the report.
"It's vindication," DeNofrio said in an interview with NPR on Thursday. "This has been two of years of saying that the office was presidential appointees coming after federal employees to keep us quiet to silence and target whistleblowers," he said, noting that other VA whistleblowers have told him a culture of fear discouraged reporting allegations of wrongdoing.
In the past two years, Trump appointees at Veteran Affairs openly scorned career employees, the report says, noting how "leaders made comments and took actions that reflected a lack of respect for individuals they deemed 'career' whistleblowers."
In response, Veterans Affairs officials blamed the former iteration of the office under the Obama administration, saying Trump's new office created a "culture change" that included improved, not diminished, accountability. Officials said since the office started, more than 8,600 people have been fired from Veteran Affairs. The VA did not say whether those fired were let go in connection with whistleblower complaints.
While Veteran Affairs objected to some of the inspector general's key findings, the agency said it "appreciates" the review and "is committed to consistent improvement."
The report describes nearly two dozen recommendations for improving the agency involving additional training and creating new investigation procedures to shield whistleblowers who want to report waste and abuse.
NPR has filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the whistleblower office. The suit, now pending before a federal judge in California, seeks to shed light on how and why the department set up to help whistleblowers has failed so many of them.
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