When Congressional investigators arrived at the regional VA office in Philadelphia, they probably didn’t expect the red-carpet treatment. However, they probably didn’t expect the Red Scare treatment, either. In testimony before Congress last night, investigators revealed that the VA office initially gave them offices that were wired to record audio and video. They also found a notebook detailing how one manager instructed employees to obstruct the investigation:
Congressional staffers investigating data falsification and whistleblower retaliation at the Department of Veterans Affairs regional office in Philadelphia were given a workspace there that was wired with activated audio microphones and video cameras, the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs said Monday.
Committee investigators also glimpsed a notebook used by the agency’s regional director that bore written instructions to ignore their requests for information, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said during a late-night hearing.
Miller, chairman of the veterans committee, said he is “shocked” by the directives from VA officials to ignore congressional investigators.
“You will not ignore this committee anymore,” Miller said to Allison Hickey, VA’s under secretary for benefits, who testified at the hearing.
The notepad belonged to Acting Director Lucy Filipov, who insisted on putting investigators into a room where computer microphones and cameras had been activated. One handwritten instruction was “ignore Rory,” one of the Congressional staffers conducting the investigation for Miller. Another note listed two of the whistleblowers that were cooperating with the committee.
ABC News reports that the whistleblowers’ notoriety resulted in unpleasant consequences:
Kristen Ruell, an authorization quality services representative at the VBA, claimed that some employees at the Philadelphia Regional Office staff were motivated to manipulate data so they’d get better performance reviews and higher bonuses.
“Instead of solving problems, I was retaliated against,” Ruell testified. “VA’s problems are the result of morally bankrupt managers.”
Ruell told lawmakers her car was dented and covered with coffee one morning and she suspects the culprits were vindictive VBA managers from the Philadelphia office. “If something doesn’t change soon, I don’t know if there’s going to be any good workers left in the VA,” she said.
If that sounds familiar, it should. The benefits side of the VA engaged in the same kind of data manipulation practices as the provider side did, and for the same reason — to fake performance metrics to boost job approval and bonuses. I wrote about this yesterday before the hearings started, and the Washington Post reported it this morning as “another VA scandal, very much like the last one”:
Some of the same problems that led to a scheduling scandal for the Department of Veterans Affairs’ health network also infected the agency’s benefits division, according to VA employees and federal watchdog agencies.
Witnesses at a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on Monday evening testified that the Veterans Benefits Administration created unrealistic goals, manipulated data to meet its targets and fostered a corrosive culture in which accountability is scarce and managers punish workers who report wrongdoing. Various official reviews have shown similar problems at VA medical centers nationwide. …
All three VA employees who testified at Monday’s hearing, each of whom came from separate benefits centers, said their managers had retaliated against them for coming forward about data manipulation.
VA disability rater Javier Soto, who worked at a Columbia, S.C. office but was later transferred to Orlando, Fla. after exposing problems, said the issue of whistleblower reprisals appears to be systemic. “There are very few managers who handle it differently,” he said.
In other words, this isn’t just a handful of provider facilities acting on their own. The VA has a culture of corruption and cover-up, conducted at the expense of veterans who have nowhere else to go for their care. Not only has the VA retaliated against whistleblowers trying to protect these veterans, they’re now resorting to spying on investigators and obstructing probes into their operations. Back in May, one whistleblower said that the VA was run like a “crime syndicate.” That certainly seems to be the case.