On June 23, 2017, President Trump signed into law the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017 (the Act). The Act and its Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP) came into being because of past bad actors within the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (the VA). Veterans were not adequately served, taxpayer money was wasted, and whistleblowers were treated badly, suffering retaliation in many forms. Worst of all, little was done when harmful actions were brought to light, allowing wrongdoing to continue.
Perhaps you recall the scandal involving long waits for care by veterans that was exposed by whistleblowers in 2014. Some veterans waited so long for care that they died before receiving it. The OAWP and the Act are intended to prevent such shocking mistreatment of veterans from reoccurring and to protect any whistleblowers who step up to report wrongdoing.
Below are some FAQs that can help potential VA whistleblower employees understand the new law and understand their rights.
What is the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP)?
The OAWP is a new office that was created to comply with President Trump’s Executive Order of April 27, 2017. It was established on May 12, 2017, with Peter O’Rourke appointed as the Executive Director and Senior Advisor.
What does the OAWP do?
The OAWP sits inside the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and is based in Washington, D.C. It provides internal investigative services in order to improve the benefits available to veterans and to increase accountability. The OAWP was created by the new Act.
How does the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017 safeguard whistleblowers?
The Act keeps whistleblowers safe from retaliation in several ways:
- VA employees can blow the whistle on wrongdoers without facing retaliation or the loss of their jobs.
- The Act prohibits the Secretary of the VA from retaliating against any whistleblower who files a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel inside the VA.
- The Act gives Congress more oversight over accountability at the VA because the head of the OAWP must be selected by the President with the “advice and consent” of the Senate.
- The VA is now required to evaluate managers based on their ability to protect whistleblowers.
- The VA must provide training to every employee yearly with regard to whistleblower complaints and process.
- Each supervisor must receive regular training concerning whistleblowers’ rights; handling an employee’s report of a hostile work environment, or of harassment or retaliation; motivating and rewarding employees; and managing employees who demonstrate poor performance.
What other provisions have been put in place by the Act?
Dealing with misconduct of various kinds now has more teeth with the Act and the OAWP. For example, it will now be easier to remove senior executives at the VA for reasons of misconduct because:
- The VA Secretary now has more flexibility in general when it comes to hiring and firing senior management.
- The accountability process for senior management no longer includes the ability to appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). Instead, an internal grievance procedure must be used. Senior management must adhere to an expedited timeline and direct any appeals to the VA Secretary.
Are there any other accountability provisions covered by the Act and OAWP?
The intentions of the Act and the OAWP are to make all employees of the Veterans Administration more accountable for their actions by implementing the following stipulations:
- The Secretary of the VA can expedite removing, demoting, or suspending of VA employees based on their misconduct or their job performance.
- The general process for removing a VA employee is now shorter.
- An employee who is appealing their removal from the VA cannot be kept on the VA payroll.
- A VA employee found guilty of misconduct cannot collect any bonuses.
- A VA employee considered an abuser of the system cannot collect relocation expenses.
- Limits exist regarding how long employees can take paid administrative leave while they are being investigated.
- Employees who are disciplined or removed from their positions for misconduct will have their benefits reduced.
- The employees who appeal their disciplinary findings cannot take paid administrative leave during the appeal process.
- Employees can have their bonuses taken back if it is determined they are guilty of misconduct.
- The VA Secretary must include poor performance and misconduct issues in the VA’s annual performance plans. Doing so, it is hoped, will prod managers into addressing these issues.
- The VA must report to Congress regularly concerning employee morale and the various administrative actions that have been taken against employees.
If you are a VA employee and have information pertinent to the misuse of funds or mistreatment of veterans, and you are thinking of blowing the whistle, then we hope these FAQs have clarified your rights for you. We urge you to seek legal counsel should you need assistance in bringing a whistleblower case.
Blowing the Whistle? We Can Help You with Your Next Step.
If you think you have the facts needed to bring a whistleblower case, the experienced whistleblower attorneys at the Louthian Law Firm can review your case and help you file the appropriate disclosure statement. Under some circumstances, the government will intervene, or join in your lawsuit.
Your chances of succeeding are greater if your whistleblower claim is substantive, clear, and to the point. Because of this, meeting with a qualified whistleblower attorney can increase your chances of winning. The Louthian Law Firm can help you form your claim so that the government will be more inclined to intervene in your case; government intervention can sometimes increase the chances of recovering reward money. Even if the government decides not to intervene, it could still be a good idea to pursue your case without government involvement. Our strong support system can assist you through every step of the process.
For a free, confidential evaluation of your case, call the Louthian Law Firm today at 1-803-454-1200 or, if you prefer, you can fill out our online contact form.