Trump's office to protect VA whistleblowers was actually punishing them instead

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Donald Trump promised to protect whistleblowers 'who do the right thing.' He has not.

Rather than protect whistleblowers in the Department of Veterans Affairs, the "Accountability and Whistleblower Protection" office Donald Trump created in 2017 has been used to suppress their claims and retaliate against them, according to an inspector general report released on Thursday.

During his 2016 campaign, Trump released a "10 Point Plan to Reform The Department of Veterans Affairs." Item number five on his list was a promise to "Protect and promote honest employees at the VA who highlight wrongdoing, and guarantee their jobs will be protected."

Three months after taking office, Trump issued an executive order to create the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP). Its purposes included ensuring "swift and effective resolution of veterans' complaints of wrongdoing at the VA" and "adequate investigation and correction of wrongdoing throughout the VA, and to protect employees who lawfully disclose wrongdoing from retaliation." Months later, he signed a bill codifying his order.

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"This bill protects whistleblowers who do the right thing," Trump said at the signing. "We want to reward, cherish, and promote the many dedicated employees at the VA."

Two years later, the IG report — "Failures Implementing Aspects of the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017" — paints a very different picture.

"Notably, in its first two years of operation, the OAWP acted in ways that were inconsistent with its statutory authority while it simultaneously floundered in its mission to protect whistleblowers," the investigation found, adding that "leaders made avoidable mistakes early in its development that created an office culture that was sometimes alienating to the very individuals it was meant to protect."

Among the other findings were that the office "did not consistently conduct procedurally sound, accurate, thorough, and unbiased investigations," that it "struggled" to "hold covered executives accountable," and that it "failed to fully protect whistleblowers from retaliation."

The report also found that the office "did not take sufficient steps to protect complainants' identities and prevent their concerns from being sent to the very facilities or network offices where the complainant worked or that were the subject of the allegations."

Further, the office "failed to establish safeguards sufficient to protect whistleblowers from becoming the subject of retaliatory investigations. One troubling instance involved the OAWP initiating an investigation that could itself be considered retaliatory."

A VA spokesperson told the Washington Post that the report "largely focuses on [OAWP] operations under previous leaders who no longer work at VA," and that its new leadership is already working to address these issues.

But so far, the report makes clear, the enhanced whistleblower protections remain another one of Trump's many broken promises.

"VA has a long way to go to ensure they can adequately investigate whistleblower claims and protect those that courageously speak up — OAWP’s most important mission," House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chair Mark Takano and Oversight Subcommittee Chair Chris Pappas said in a statement Thursday.

"Whistleblowers should have the confidence that OAWP will investigate disclosures of wrongdoing, and that whistleblowers will receive protection against retaliation," they added.

The two said they would address the report at a hearing the following week.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.