After a food services manager with the Department of Veterans Affairs in Philadelphia blew the whistle on faulty sanitation practices, his supervisors attempted to fire him for eating four old sandwiches worth a total of $5. Yet the concerns he raised about a fly infestation were not looked into, investigators said. He also was reassigned to clean a morgue.
Troy Thompson's story is being used as an example of how VA is quick to silence and punish whistleblowers, yet fails "to adequately discipline employees for endangering the health and safety of veterans," said Carolyn Lerner, the special counsel who is pressing the White House to look into a "pattern" that concerned her.
"This is a pattern where whistleblowers who disclose wrongdoing often face trumped-up charges but where employees who put vets' health at risk or engage in misconduct that endangers vets are going unpunished," Lerner said. "The bottom line is, you can't discipline whistleblowers for coming forward but not discipline those who have done wrong."
Her letter to the White House comes before a Senate hearing Tuesday in which Lerner, along with several whistleblowers, will testify. Among them will be Brandon Coleman, a therapist and decorated veteran at the VA hospital in Phoenix, the epicenter of last year's scandal.
Five suicidal veterans had walked out of the emergency room without getting help during a single week in January, he told his supervisor. Six days after he spoke with his boss, Coleman recalled, he was suspended from his job.
It's been more than a year since a group of whistleblowers came forward to expose lying about wait times for veterans seeking care for an array of conditions. Eric Shinseki resigned as VA secretary amid the national scandal.
His replacement, Robert McDonald, has promised wide-ranging reforms at VA. He announced that he wanted to make "every employee a whistleblower" and create a fresh culture that "celebrates them." And he promised to change what has been described as part of a "corrosive culture" inside VA.
Although the agency has made progress, Lerner said, the last part of the puzzle is making sure whistleblowers are protected and to punish those who do wrong. The letter says, for instance, that Katherine Mitchell, a VA doctor who raised numerous problems that were hurting veterans in Phoenix, was threatened and mistreated.