When Robert McDonald took over as secretary of Veterans Affairs last year he had nothing but praise for the VA whistleblowers who had exposed how VA hospitals denied veterans needed health care. That scandal caused the resignation of Mr. McDonald’s predecessor, former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki.
Now a measure of Mr. McDonald’s own ineffectiveness as secretary is the growing evidence that VA managers still fire and punish workers at will for exposing the agency’s systemic shortcomings.
Over the past two years at least 40 VA employees have been disciplined or fired for improper actions revealed by whistleblowers after investigation by an independent agency.
But retaliation against VA whistleblowers is also on the rise.
VA whistleblowing cases now dominate the docket of the federal agency charged with protecting the rights of federal employees.
On taking over at the VA, Secretary McDonald said he “wanted to make every employee a whistleblower,” and wanted a culture at the VA that “celebrates them.”
It was, and is, a sound policy. Large bureaucracies must be open to the opinions of workers who see a better way to achieve agency goals or who recognize possibly corrupt practices.
Acknowledging this fact, Congress in a series of acts between 1979 and 1994 created the Office of Special Counsel and gave it the power to protect federal employee rights, including the right to petition Congress and the right to legal representation if illegally punished.
Today, according to that agency, whistleblower complaints from the VA are more numerous than from any other federal agency, including the Department of Defense with twice as many employees. Indeed, the number has surged since Mr. McDonald took over as VA secretary.
The latest case to come to light demonstrates just how arbitrary, vindictive and punitive VA managers can be when employees exercise their rights.
Retired Army Sgt. Brady Frink, a disabled veteran working for the VA in Baltimore, wanted to obtain his VA benefits claim folder to add a dependent as a beneficiary. The agency told him it could not find the folder.
In frustration, Sgt. Frink wrote his congressman seeking additional help, knowing that requests from federal lawmakers often get better and faster service than citizen requests handled by normal bureaucratic processes.
For this he was fired.
The dismissal came in 2013, a year before Mr. McDonald took office. But it has taken until now for the Office of Special Counsel to get Sgt. Frink reinstated with back pay.
Sgt. Frink’s primary — and thoroughly justified — motive for coming forward was to secure his rightful benefits.
But his example — and willingness to come forward — has also further exposed the rampant VA problems still shortchanging our nation’s veterans.
And though the Office of Special Counsel said high-level VA officials have been cooperative with their efforts to make things right for Sgt. Frink, the mistreatment of this disabled veteran epitomizes the VA’s chronic failures to fulfill its legal — and moral — responsibility.
Meanwhile, Mr. McDonald’s credibility keeps sinking. More than a year into his job as the VA’s leader, his repeated lip service about fixing what’s so terribly wrong at the agency no longer suffices.
And unless he soon starts producing the positive results he promised, the Obama administration should replace him, too.