For VA Whistleblowers, A Culture Of Fear And Retaliation
Alan Hyde is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System. He served in Operation Desert Storm, where he suffered an in-service leg injury. But it's his time with the Central Alabama VA, he says, that has left him more rattled, frustrated and angry.
"It's a toxic environment there," Hyde says. "And I feel sorry for the veterans."
Hyde is both a patient and a former employee at the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System in Montgomery. He supervised employees who took vets for treatment outside the VA. Hyde was fired after six months for unspecified misconduct. He is among dozens of people who say they faced vicious retaliation when they tried to improve conditions there or hold managers accountable.
More than 30 current and former VA employees spoke to NPR. They include doctors, nurses and administrators — many of them veterans themselves. All describe an entrenched management culture that uses fear and intimidation to prevent potential whistleblowers from talking.
"If you say anything about patient care and the problems, you're quickly labeled a troublemaker and attacked by a clique that just promotes itself. Your life becomes hell," one longtime employee at the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System, or CAVHCS, told NPR. Like many we interviewed there, she requested anonymity out of fear for her job.
The problems are especially acute at hospital complexes in Montgomery and Tuskegee, Ala., which are part of a regional network known as VA Southeast Network VISN 7. The Department of Veterans Affairs divides veterans' health care into 21 geographic regions called VISNs.
Workers say the retaliatory tactics run the gamut from sophomoric (a shift manager pouring salt into a subordinate's coffee cup) to hard-to-fathom (isolation rooms used as psychological coercion) and more.
"There's no accountability," Hyde says. "And it's gonna be a never-ending cycle here until someone steps in and starts cleaning house from the top and putting people in who care about the veterans."
But neither those charged with federal oversight nor the VA itself has taken those steps, months or even years after the first complaints were reported.
VISN 7 leads the VA in the number of whistleblower complaints per veteran served. The VA itself leads all federal agencies in the number of whistleblowers who say they've been retaliated against — up to 40 percent annually, according to federal testimony. Two nonprofit groups that support whistleblowers say the number of retaliation cases they see from the VA is far higher.
In the case of Central Alabama, NPR's investigation found that senior leadership subjected employees who spoke up to similar patterns of punishment:
Why are conditions so bad in Central Alabama? Watchdog groups and affected workers believe it's a combination of weak, inconsistent enforcement of whistleblower protection laws, a senior managerial culture that practices and condones bullying, and a VA system that too often sends whistleblower grievances right back to regional managers who are often part of the original complaints.
The scope of the retaliation and sheer number of retaliation complaints in VISN 7 and across the agency raise questions about whether the VA can adequately police itself and embrace whistleblowers as President Trump and the VA have vowed to do.
Stealing food from vets
"I hadn't been there [Central Alabama] two weeks when an employee came in to tell me about illegal activities in the kitchen, and he stopped right there and he said, 'But if you're not going to do anything about it, I'm going to keep my mouth shut, otherwise I become the target,'" says retired U.S. Army Col. Cynthia Chavez.
Chavez has some 50 years of combined Army active duty, Reserve and VA service. She has consistent outstanding or exceptional performance reviews across both institutions.
In June 2014, she was hired to lead Nutrition and Food Services for Central Alabama's VA. She soon found that both the Montgomery and Tuskegee hospital kitchens — especially Tuskegee's — had serious, systemic problems.
Some employees, she says, routinely came in late, left early or didn't show up at all. One, she says, would openly drink on the job. That employee once told a veteran in a PTSD program, " 'I'll give you the bullet to put in the gun to shoot yourself,' " she says.
Remarkably, that wasn't the worst of it.
Chavez was told that a longtime employee was allegedly running a side catering business out of the VA kitchen in Tuskegee.
"She was using government employees, government food, on government time, for her catering business," Chavez says. "She was selling it [food] through her catering business" to area companies and churches. "And so when I did my due diligence, sure enough, she couldn't answer questions about how she'd catered this event and yet she was on duty."
One Valentine's Day, for example, a case of steaks and cheesecakes meant for a special hospital meal for vets went missing.Several co-workers told Chavez the thievery had been going on for years.
Chavez was shocked and moved quickly to investigate and temporarily suspend the employee, emails and documents show.She also imposed stronger discipline and order on a hospital kitchen she says "was like the Wild West. They [employees] did what they wanted to." All the food in the kitchen is from appropriated funds meant only for veterans in hospital treatment. "Myself, as a 30-year veteran, I couldn't even eat there."
Soon after, Chavez got the first of many anonymous-threat letters slipped under her Tuskegee office door. "This isn't the Army, where you had connections. This is the VA and we will get you," one letter said.
But Chavez says that the anonymous-threat letters were only slightly more menacing than what she soon got from her boss and the local union leaders.
Following an almost classic whistleblower retaliation script, instead of support, Chavez was soon investigated for "abuse of authority" and "creating a hostile work environment."
The union, Tuskegee AFGE Local 110, quickly announced it had taken a vote of "no confidence" in Chavez.
And her top boss, a career VA employee named Leslie Wiggins, soon told her in no uncertain terms to back off.
In fact, Wiggins then took charge of all discipline and oversight of the VA's troubled hospital kitchen. She also stripped Chavez of all the authority and oversight she had been hired to impose on the department. The reason given, emails and documents show, was Chavez's "inappropriate disciplinary actions" against the food service staff.
When a local union official complained that Chavez was issuing what he called "unsubstantiated" AWOLs, or absent without leave sanctions, Wiggins — then serving as acting director of CAVHCS as well as head of VISN 7 — emailed Chavez: "This is a very disturbing email" about what "may be a problem practice" of issuing AWOLs. "So until further notice," Wiggins wrote, "there are to be NO AWOL's issued until I review them."
"I am trying to hold employees accountable and all I get is pushback through anonymous letters," Chavez says. "And even when HR was saying, 'No, she's justified in what she's trying to do,' they would not let me take any discipline against anything that the employees were doing."
She notified federal offices that she was the target of whistleblower retaliation. Nothing, so far, has come of it. Chavez eventually went out on medical leave to care for her cancer-stricken husband.
This past January, Chavez's boss and Central Alabama's director, Linda Boyle, emailed her: "The decision has been made to terminate you effective January, 30, 2018."
Chavez's request to be allowed to retire at the end of March and to use her remaining sick leave to help her husband was denied. She reluctantly retired.
Despite several Freedom of Information Act requests, Chavez has never seen details of the charges brought against her in what's known as an Administrative Investigation Board (AIB).
The woman who was allegedly stealing food from veterans for years through her side catering business? She was allowed to retire with full benefits. There's no indication she was ever disciplined by the VA or the local union.
Neither Wiggins nor Boyle would comment on Chavez's case or the wider pattern of retaliation.
Dr. Julian Kassner, a former lieutenant commander, is a Navy-trained physician with a stellar record. The Central Alabama VA hired the native New Yorker in 2016 to clean up a deeply troubled radiology department that had been embroiled in a 2014 scandal involving falsified records and substandard care. More than 2,000 X-rays of veterans went unread over a five-year period.
Kassner, interviews with his former subordinates show, worked fast to try to clean up the department. His radiology co-workers liked that he was taking charge. He got a good performance review from his immediate boss and was even tasked with helping to implement radiology improvements across the Southeast district.
Then suddenly, he found himself the target of an investigation and workplace retaliation.
"I was absolutely shell-shocked," Kassner says, "and initially my thinking was, 'Well, I have no idea what this is about, but hopefully it'll get sorted out in a day or two.'"
He immediately sent a letter requesting clarification as to what exactly he'd been accused of and an opportunity to respond.
Soon after, Kassner, like other whistleblowers in VISN 7, was isolated — literally — in a remote room. He was ordered not to talk with colleagues or access documents while the investigation unfolded.
To be closer to his family in neighboring Florida, Kassner's contract allowed him to read medical images remotely part of the time, a common practice in radiology. The Montgomery leadership began to use that telework agreement against him and ordered him on site full time.
During the initial days of retaliation, he thought he was going crazy.
But he wasn't. Audio of a meeting between two HR officials in Montgomery and Dr. Randall Weaver, then the acting chief of staff at the hospital there, describes the VISN leadership's alleged view of Kassner.
In the audio, Weaver says he hopes Kassner quits because if he comes back from sick leave, Atlanta VA leaders in VISN 7 will surely find any way to fire him.
"The thing for him, because of his situation where they're gonna — people will be after you again no matter what you do, even if you sneeze wrong they're gonna get you," Weaver says. He adds that because of Kassner's brusque personality, "it's easy to get stuff on him," meaning to get people to turn against him.
Weaver did not respond to NPR's request for comment.
The actions alarmed Sheila Walsh, the director of human resources for the Central Alabama VA.
"That's what made me feel so sick to my stomach, I mean because that's all code for they're going to target him," says Walsh, who made the recording. She routinely taped meetings under a disabilities act health accommodation.
Kassner was soon fired from CAVHCS. He was never given a reason. Documents show that the Alabama VA has stonewalled his attorney's efforts to uncover evidence.
For Kassner, the audiotape, the emails and the scores of documents — all of which he has turned over to federal investigators — underscore what he and others call a deeply troubling "mafia culture" at CAVHCS and VISN 7 leadership.
"Toxic, dysfunction and out of control is an understatement. There are people at the senior level there that consider themselves the equivalent of a 'made man' in the mafia, that there are no rules that apply to them up to and including fraud and record falsification," he says. "How this is allowed to go on is just mind boggling."
His case may have another serious wrinkle. Kassner says he has evidence that his federal pay and employment records were altered by someone in Central Alabama. He says they falsely show he was "separated" from the VA before the end of his two-year probationary period, a key legal time frame for a federal employee because of work rules and benefit eligibility. They listed income after his probationary period, Kassner points out, as "deferred income" from a previous year. "It's record falsification pure and simple," he says.
HR director targeted
Remember Sheila Walsh, the head of the VA's Central Alabama human resources division? The CAVHCS and VISN 7 leadership went after her, too.
As HR director, Walsh, a 20-year Army vet, stood up for Chavez, for Kassner and, documents show, for several other Alabama whistleblowers she believed were facing unjust treatment and illegal retaliation.
After Walsh had told superiors, yet again, that the case against Kassner was legally and morally suspect, her supervisor Leslie Wiggins emailed her to "stand down."
"I went on the record [with her supervisors] saying I'm not going to participate in this level of corruption, illegal actions," Walsh says. "And so I became the enemy. Instead of them investigating the wrongdoings, they started investigating me."
The retaliation also included intimidation and four weeks of isolation. Like Kassner, Chavez and the others, she was assigned to an isolated office and told not to communicate with fellow staffers or access documents while the investigation unfolded.
"They wanted me to feel humiliated," Walsh says, "trying to break me down. And they did break me down."
A CAVHCS supervisor took away her office keys and even took possession of her Army service medals, military command coins and an American flag in a case that she got for 20 years of honorable military service, as well as family photos. Walsh believes taking control of her personal possessions was clearly part of the retaliation.
"It's a kind of psychological violence," she says, tearing up over the loss of her Army service mementos. "I feel violated. I feel like someone robbed me."
CAVHCS has, so far, ignored her efforts to get those personal military items returned. She has even appealed to the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs to get her military items back. So far, there has been no action.
These retaliatory tactics in Alabama follow a clear pattern: Employees who flag problems or wrongdoing are quickly counter-investigated — almost always charged with creating "a hostile work environment" or other vague charges. Then the employee is isolated – literally.
"Basically we call it putting the whistleblowers in professional solitary confinement," says Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project. He says it's a tactic long used by some VA managers to try to crush whistleblowers."Keep them away from the evidence, make them pariahs among their peers. Make an example out of them. Generally the rooms where these people are assigned to bounce off the walls without duties are unheated in the winter and uncooled in the summer. It's like putting somebody in a hot box."
Senior VA leaders in Alabama and Atlanta declined to answer questions about the alleged pattern of retaliation, corruption and mismanagement.
The director of the VA Southeast Network VISN 7 – Leslie Wiggins — refused multiple interview requests through three different spokespersons.
The current director of Central Alabama's VA, Linda Boyle, also refused multiple interview requests through spokespeople.
Jan Northstar, the VA's Southeast District public affairs director, said by email that they cannot discuss individual cases without written consent. She added the "VA does not tolerate retaliation. Any employee who feels he or she is experiencing retaliation should contact the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection."
Like Chavez, Kassner and scores of others we talked with in Alabama, former HR director Walsh has, in fact, filed formal complaints with the VA's own Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, as well as with the federal Office of Special Counsel, the federal Merit Systems Protection Board and other offices.
Walsh's doctor says she has a form of PTSD from the VA experience. The HR director remains out on unpaid medical leave after exhausting her annual leave.
Walsh and the others want those federal bodies or Congress itself to take bold action to change the years-long pattern of retaliation.
So far, their cases have been largely met with inaction, silence or indifference.
One whistleblower wins
VISN 7's director Leslie Wiggins, in fact, has had numerous whistleblower retaliation complaints filed against her, including one by an employee in her immediate office in Atlanta. The federal Office of Special Counsel ruled against Wiggins and her office in a case that, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution put it, showed that the Atlanta VA seemed more preoccupied with halting bad press coverage than stopping a series of veteran suicides in the Atlanta area.
Retired Army Sgt. Maj. Greg Kendall, a 30-year veteran with tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, took a job as a public affairs officer (PAO) in the Atlanta VA after his military service. Kendall says he raised concerns about spending tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars promoting a local charity gala that senior VA employees planned to attend. At the time, the Atlanta office was under fire for underfunding and understaffing veteran mental health services, including suicide prevention efforts.
"The leadership was not interested in my concerns and basically told me to mind my own business," Kendall says.
When the charity story went public, the Atlanta management quickly gave him a bad evaluation, placed him on a performance improvement plan, and, following the pattern, isolated him in a small, shabby, vacant patient room while he was "investigated."
"The entire leadership team knew that I was in that patient room for almost a year that could have been used for veteran care," Kendall says, but "they were more concerned about retaliation than taking care of veterans."
Kendall fought back, filing for whistleblower protection. The federal Office of Special Counsel (OSC) investigated and ruled in Kendall's favor, saying he had been targeted and punished for speaking up.
"Mr. Kendall did the right thing by raising concerns about an inappropriate expenditure of taxpayer dollars, but the Atlanta VA failed to heed his warnings and instead targeted Mr. Kendall," the Special Counsel's Carolyn Lerner wrote in the OSC ruling. Lerner added that "the VA must continue working to make its culture more welcoming to whistleblowers in all of its facilities."
Kendall says he blew the whistle after thinking about the vets he served with in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"They depend on the VA," he said. "So the very fact that we (Atlanta VA) have been cited for mismanagement that led to suicides told me that we needed to do something to make sure that that didn't happen again."
His case is one of the only whistleblower cases to succeed against VISN 7 leadership.
Can the VA police itself?
Nearly a year ago, the VA reorganized the unit responsible for protecting workers who call out wrongdoing, waste, fraud and abuse. In that 11-month period, the new Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP) has received 120 whistleblower complaints from VISN 7: the most complaints of retaliation per veteran served of the department's 21 VISNs.
Only VISN 22 (Southern California, Arizona and New Mexico) and VISN 8 (Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands) had similar numbers, but both serve a larger number of veterans. VISN 8, for example, had about 1.5 times as many completed veteran appointments in 2017, according to the VA's own patient access data.
Of those 120 complaints against VISN 7, 79 were determined to be of "reasonable belief" and 51 investigations were opened.
Yet only 11 of those 51 are currently under investigation by OAWP. The other 40 were sent back to VISN 7 or district level for investigation.
It's exactly that investigatory boomerang, critics say, that highlights why the VA is so ineffectual at policing whistleblower retaliation.
For example, emails from Walsh, the HR executive, show that during her last contact with OAWP, the office told her that her case was under investigation. But Walsh hasn't heard from OAWP in more than eight months.
"No calls, no emails, no texts, nothing. It's like we don't exist," she says.
VA spokeswoman Ashleigh Barry said the OAWP would not comment on active investigations or allegations of worker retaliation at VISN 7, but said the department takes all allegations seriously.
But a year later, there's skepticism the OAWP is living up to its name.
"We've got a very sick organization. The important thing (for the VA) is to squelch the whistleblowers to speak. You know, it's like shoot the messenger because it's not the message we want to hear," says VA whistleblower Sheila Meuse, who has 30-plus years of federal service — almost all of it at VA facilities across the country.
Meuse rose from a clinician to, in 2014, serving briefly as the third in command at Central Alabama. "I always had either outstanding or exceptional ratings," she says. "I can't remember any one rating ever that was below exceptional in my career history."
Just four months into her new job in Alabama, Meuse and her direct boss, Richard Tremaine, exposed unethical practices — part of that wait-times scandal in 2014 that played out in multiple VA hospitals across the country.
Central Alabama has long had other, well-documented problems. CAVHCS was investigated by the Office of Inspector General, which confirmed it had some of the worst wait times in the country.
VISN 7 was recently cited for failing "vulnerable veterans" by not adequately providing and repairing wheelchairs and scooters for disabled service men and women. Also, in 2017 a Navy veteran with dementia wandered away from the Tuskegee VA dementia unit. He was never found.
But the wait-time scandal in Alabama also involved misconduct, negligence and cover-up: several thousand veteran X-rays were never read, and one VA employee in Tuskegee took a veteran in recovery to a crack house to buy drugs. The employee even charged the VA several hundred dollars in overtime pay for the drug-buying binge.
Meuse and Tremaine, gave inspectors evidence that the then-director had known about cooking the wait time books for at least a year. That CAVHCS director, James Talton, was eventually fired for neglect of duty.
Yet, lost in all that scandal was what happened to whistleblowers Tremaine and Meuse.
"We were excluded, we were yelled at. I was detailed to another facility. I was met by nothing but retaliation, resistance and shunning," Meuse says. "It was just a horrible, horrible experience. Totally a nightmare."
The Atlanta VA director launched an administrative probe of them. They were isolated and stripped of duties. Atlanta wanted to know if the two whistleblowers had behaved in a way consistent "with the VA's core values."
Tremaine took a senior management job at a VA hospital in Colorado. Meuse left the VA. She now sells real estate around Montgomery.
Tremaine believes the genesis of CAVHC's deep problems "has a lot to do with nepotism and an overall lack of real commitment to fix things by a minority of people who've maintained control and leadership" despite numerous investigations and a flood of complaints. "We [whistleblowers] should really have a T-shirt that says 'I Survived CAVHCS.' "
Improving VA management and protecting workers who speak up was one of President Trump's campaign pledges.
"Those entrusted with the sacred duty of serving our veterans will be held accountable for the care they provide," the president said at a VA reform bill signing ceremony last year. "At the same time, this bill protects whistleblowers who do the right thing. We want to reward, cherish, and promote the many dedicated employees at the VA."
Meuse is not convinced the newly rebranded whistleblower protection office can fix what she calls an abusive ethos that runs deep in some parts of the VA, especially in Alabama.
"I don't think naming an office is how you fix an organizational culture that is really rancid and full of cronyism, favoritism; the old guard that takes care of themselves to maintain the status quo instead of caring for veterans," she says.
Many watchdog groups agree. The complaints about President Trump's newly created office include that it's understaffed and that investigations drag on.
But the biggest critique is that the whistleblower protection office or OAWP can't really enforce its findings.
"I've been impressed that the new OAWP is actually making a good faith effort. But they don't have any teeth to their good faith," says Tom Devine with the nonprofit Government Accountability Project.
He says the office is staffed by people whose hearts are in the right place. But "until they get some enforcement teeth, all they are going to be is background noise. And right now the situation at the VA is, by far, the most intolerable in the [federal] government."
Devine says numbers to his office show that about 40 percent of all whistleblower retaliation complaints from the entire U.S. government come from the VA. Federal testimony supports those numbers.
Central to the problem is that whistleblowers' retaliation complaints can often end up being handled by the very people accused of doing the retaliation. In Alabama and Georgia, as we've shown, it's a common tactic to open up a counter-investigation of the worker who raises issues. That often includes nebulous charges that the whistleblower is creating a "hostile environment."
"I haven't heard anyone tell me that when they've gone to this office of accountability that they've actually been assisted," says Jackie Garrick, the founding director of the independent group Whistleblowers of America.
Garrick says at least 80 percent of all cases that come into her office are from VA employees.
In fact, tensions within the VA over whistleblowers came to light when a congressman released correspondence this week.
In a strongly worded letter, the VA's Inspector General (OIG) voiced deep concern that the OAWP is failing to turn over key records and information about the 150 to 170 employee retaliation complaints that office receives every month.
The inspector general is the VA's oversight body tasked with audits, investigations and detecting waste, abuse and mismanagement.
VA Inspector General Michael J. Missal wrote that "despite repeated assurances that these records would be made available, the OIG has not yet been provided this important information." Missal added that "it does not appear that an appropriate number of complaints have been referred to the OIG."
Peter O'Rourke, the acting secretary of Veterans Affairs, who until recently headed the whistleblower protection office, fired back accusing the OIG of "abuse of authority" and mismanagement. O'Rourke said the OIG was "not performing its responsibilities in a fair and objective manner, which has caused significant harm to the reputation and performance of VA and its employees."
Minnesota Democrat Tim Walz, a ranking member of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, blasted O'Rourke's letter to Missal, calling it intimidation and "not in the best interest of America's veterans."
In response to the dispute, VA spokesman Curt Cashour wrote that "giving the IG unfettered access to OAWP whistleblower case files could make whistleblowers vulnerable to retaliation, place a chilling effect on future disclosures and lead to the same sort of problems whistleblowers and the Office of Special Counsel have criticized the IG for in the past."
Whether the VA can be fair and objective while investigating itself will be one key challenge for President Trump's pick to lead the VA, nominee Robert Wilkie Jr., who faces confirmation hearings later this year.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.