By Lena Williams, Guild-CWA :: The woman, a disabled veteran, told the WJLA-TV reporter she wanted to remain anonymous because she feared further retaliation for blowing the whistle on her federal employer.
She was fired from her job at the National Council on Disability last April, 15 months after being placed on paid administrative leave, after reporting waste, fraud and abuse in the agency’s handling of competitive contracts.
Her request for anonymity seemed unwarranted since the woman had already lost an administrative appeal of her termination on a technicality. But she was aware of recent news stories about scores of veterans who were harassed, abused, mistreated, demoted and summarily fired from jobs for blowing the whistle on abuses at the Veterans Administration.
Like VA employee, Brandon Coleman, a Marine Corps veteran who works at the VA office in Phoenix, Ariz. After his whistleblowing activities began earlier this year, his bosses questioned the condition of his mental health and threatened to lower his disability rating. Or Dr. Christian Head, who works in the Los Angeles VA. He described how he was punished for issuing complaints about internal practices, among them the batch deletion of patient appointments. Tonja Laney, the chief financial officer at the Phoenix VA, was called a “mudshark,” a term used to describe white women who sleep with black men, after she accused the Veterans Health Administration of corruption and internecine conflicts.
The former employee at the National Council on Disability had every reason to fear coming forward and talking to the press about her case might not sit well with her former bosses.
So when she was interviewed on the ABC-affiliate station in Washington on July 1, she was videotaped in the shadows of a darkened room, her face obscured by a fuzzy black spot. Her name was withheld. But there was conviction and determination in her voice when she said she wanted an apology from the White House for the trauma she has suffered these past two years.
“I followed the president’s orders,” she told Chris Platt, an investigative journalist for WJLA-TV. “I reported waste, fraud and abuse.”
The disabled vet told Platt she had taken a job at the National Council on Disability in 2012. Soon after joining the agency, which is charged with advising the president, Congress and other federal agencies on policies, programs, practices and procedures that affect people with disabilities, she expressed concerns over what she believed to be illegal contracts, not competitively bid or properly executed.
Soon after she was placed on administrative leave. During the 15 months she was at home and not working, she was paid $170,000 taxpayer dollars by the agency. She was terminated, without explanation, in April.
“They don’t want me in the office, seeing what they’re doing,” she said.
Whistleblowers are supposed to be protected by federal law. But in a growing number of cases, whistleblowers have been left, exposed, vulnerable and unprotected by loopholes in federal and state whistleblower laws.
The WJLA-TV investigative team obtained internal documents that showed the Office of Special Counsel had looked into the whistleblower’s claim and “strongly” urged the agency to request an Inspector General investigation, citing a “substantial likelihood” of “violations of law,” including by senior officials.
Because the Council on Disability does not have an Inspector General, the independent investigation never happened. The Council claimed its own internal audit found no wrongdoing but offered the disabled vet $366,000 to drop her employment complaint against the agency. She turned down the money, saying that if she took it, she would not be able to look herself in the mirror.
Her case raises questions not only about protections for whistleblowers but also why the Council on Disability is one of 41 independent federal agencies that do not have an inspector general to investigate allegations of government fraud, waste or abuse.
“That’s a problem,” Catherine Trujillo, the Acting Inspector General with USAID, told Platt. Trujillo said that without an inspector general, agencies lack sufficient oversight while accounting for $1 billion in federal funding.
“It’s like self-policing, almost,” said Trujillo.
In 2009, the GAO published a report stating that employees who reported illegal activities did not receive enough protection from retaliation by their employers. Based on data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, only 21 percent of the 1,800 whistleblower cases reviewed by the agency in 2007 had a “favorable outcome” for the whistleblower. The GAO found that the key issues were lack of resources for investigating employees’ claims and the legal complexity of whistleblower protection regulations.
The mistreatment of veterans is especially troubling.
The brave and honorable men and women, volunteers all, who have fought for this country, have earned the right to be treated with respect, not harassed, harangued and humiliated for exercising their Constitutional rights.
In January 2015, the VA announced it was offering payoffs to VA whistleblowers who faced retaliation nationwide after filing complaints of wrongdoing at VA hospitals and clinics. The payoffs were offered to 25 VA employees, including a doctor formerly associated with a Maryland VA clinic who was reprimanded after reporting crimes against veterans.
Like the soldier she was, the disabled veteran interviewed by WJLA-TV, isn’t backing down. She wants an apology from the president and has vowed to soldier-on in the fight against the National Council on Disability.
“I did nothing wrong,” she said. “The only thing I did was report malfeasance in this agency and I was harassed for doing the right thing.”