Watchdog: Accountability

Watchdog group hit with subpoena from Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general seeking whistleblower identities

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An independent watchdog group that set up a safe place for Department of Veterans Affairs whistleblowers to report wrongdoing has been hit with a subpoena by the agency's inspector general, demanding it disclose names and other confidential information.

The Project on Government Oversight notified the IG on Monday that it will not comply. Revealing names and other information about whistleblowers that have contacted the non-profit organization confidentially would put those people at risk and jeopardize POGO's mission to expose government wrongdoing, Danielle Brian, the group's executive director, said in a letter asking that the subpoena be withdrawn.

The IG is investigating reports that secret waiting lists were used to hide long delays in medical care at veterans' hospitals in Phoenix and other cities.

The Associated Press reported Monday that more than 57,000 patients have been waiting for initial medical appointments at VA hospitals and clinics at least 90 days.

A VA audit found 13 percent of VA schedulers reported supervisors told them to falsify appointment dates to make wait times appear shorter, according to AP.

Since POGO launched its joint effort with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America last month, it has received about 700 tips, about a fourth of which come from current or former VA employees.

“The people coming to POGO have a shared interest in our investigative reporting and efforts to expose and remedy the failures at the VA,” Brian said in her letter to Richard Griffin, acting inspector general at VA.

“That shared interest includes allowing those sources to make disclosures to POGO without fear of being identified and possibly retaliated against. The overall intent is to ensure that the investigation remains focused on the VA’s failures and that the focus does not become an agency-wide witch hunt to punish the individuals who stepped forward,” Brian said.

The joint POGO website with IAVA was launched May 15, the same day that former Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki was grilled during a Senate hearing about the agency's failure to remedy years of reports that data on patient wait times was being falsified to hide long backlogs.

Shinseki resigned two weeks later, after an interim report from the IG verified claims from whistleblowers in Phoenix that secret waiting lists were kept to make it appear patients were being seen within weeks of seeking an appointment.

The IG’s preliminary review found thousands of veterans were instead forced to wait months, with their names kept on unofficial logs and only added to the official waiting list shortly before an appointment was available.

The IG investigation found the practice “systemic” throughout the VA.

The Washington Examiner reported last month that whistleblowers who have come forward at the veterans' agency routinely faced retaliation, including being stripped of their duties, put on administrative leave or fired.

VA routinely dismisses whistleblowers as disgruntled or unreliable employees.

Many of those who faced retaliation tried to report wrongdoing to the inspector general. For instance, Oliver Mitchell said he was stripped of his duties, harassed and eventually forced out of his job as a radiological scheduling clerk in Los Angeles after he exposed a mass purge of appointment orders to the inspector general.

The IG dismissed Mitchell’s complaint after agency officials claimed the “mass purge” was done within agency guidelines, which require an order to be individually reviewed to ensure it was no longer needed before being cancelled.

The Examiner reported in May that more than 1.5 million medical orders were purged by the VA beginning in 2013 with no guarantee the patients got the tests or other medical care they needed.

Last week, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which investigates allegations of retaliation against whistleblowers, said it has 37 open investigations of alleged abuse by VA officials.

The IG's subpoena and accompanying letter from Griffin were issued May 30, the same day Shinseki resigned.

The subpoena demands all records POGO has received from current or former VA employees related to patient scheduling issues in Phoenix or any other agency facility. It also seeks such things as emails, notes, appointment books, tapes and even records on phone conversations.

Aside from putting the whistleblowers at risk, Brian said in her response that complying with the IG subpoena would jeopardize POGO’s reputation as an independent watchdog that protects confidential sources.

She invoked the organization’s protections under the First Amendment, which is typically used by news organizations protecting confidential sources.

Brian noted the IG cannot assure confidentiality.

“For POGO to effectively operate as a government watchdog, we must assure our sources that their identities will not be revealed,” Brian wrote in asking the subpoena be rescinded. “Anything less renders our work futile.”

Catherine Gromek, spokeswoman for the VA-IG, would not discuss the subpoena.

“POGO’s response is under review and any comments will be directed at POGO,” she said in an email response to questions from the Examiner.

The VA-IG’s subpoena is the seventh time since the early 1990s that POGO has been hit by subpoenas or similar demands by federal agencies, all of which have been refused.

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