- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A whistleblower in the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs office has been placed on unpaid leave less than one week after he and other VA workers met privately with Republican lawmakers investigating complaints about the beleaguered agency, raising fresh concerns about employee intimidation at the department.

The VA employee, a disabled veteran, was informed by management of his unpaid status shortly after his meeting April 2 with Reps. Patrick Meehan and Ryan A. Costello, Pennsylvania Republicans and members of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, The Washington Times has learned.

The veteran said Wednesday that he also been told that management accuses him of poor performance and intends to dismiss him from his job within 90 days.

“You can imagine the chilling effect this is having on whistleblowers coming forward in that office,” said the veteran, who asked not to be identified.

He said the action against him is part of an orchestrated “vendetta” against VA employees who have talked to the media about chronic service problems in the Philadelphia regional office, one of the nation’s largest, handling benefits for more than 800,000 veterans in three states.

The VA had no comment on the employee’s job status or accusations of intimidation.

VA Secretary Robert McDonald, who took over in July amid a scandal over delayed care and phony waiting lists at VA hospitals, has pledged to stop the agency’s pattern of punishing whistleblowers. He said the VA instead should be encouraging employees to come forward when they know of wrongdoing.

But the Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency that investigates whistleblower claims, has found sustained examples of retribution against VA whistleblowers.

From April to December last year, the office took corrective action on behalf of 25 VA whistleblowers. It also has been investigating dozens of other cases.

The scandal started last year in the Phoenix VA, but the Philadelphia office has emerged as one of the agency’s most troubled. The VA inspector general issued 35 recommendations last month to fix problems in Philadelphia, including unannounced checks of the mailroom and refresher courses for supervisors on how to dispose of documents properly.

The inspector general urged the office to take immediate action to stop any improper payments to veterans and to prevent improper disposal of records, mishandling of returned mail and fraudulent use of date stamps on claims documents.

The inspector general also has launched an investigation into the relocation payment of $288,000 last year to Philadelphia VA Director Diana Rubens — about $275,000 more than the average relocation expense paid by the agency in 2011. The VA said most of the payment was made under the agency’s appraised value offer program, which helps employees sell their homes quickly when they are being transferred.

Ms. Rubens sold her home in Alexandria, Virginia, last year to a VA contractor, Stone Financing LLC, for $770,000, although it had been appraised at $665,000. Seven months later, Stone Financing sold the house for $667,000, according to property records.

An official with Stone Financing didn’t return requests for comment on why the contractor took a six-figure loss on Ms. Rubens’ house.

Amid such questions, Mr. Meehan and Mr. Costello visited the Philadelphia VA office last week to meet with Ms. Rubens and talk with whistleblowers.

The lawmakers met with a group of whistleblowers in a small conference room and “reassured them that they would be provided protection,” they said later in a joint statement.

But employees who attended the meeting said several VA managers were seen “hovering” in a hallway outside the conference room in what the whistleblowers said was an apparent attempt to identify the employees.

The episode left one whistleblower in tears. Colleagues led the worker out of the room through a different hallway in order not to be spotted by the office managers.

“Last July, Ms. Rubens filmed and recorded congressional investigators without their knowledge and/or consent, so that was a concern of all of us,” said the employee who was placed on unpaid leave.

Another VA employee said Ms. Rubens gave an address to workers before the meeting in which she spoke in a disparaging tone about her “friends on the Hill” and said House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, Florida Republican, “likes poking fun at me.”

This employee, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity because he fears for his job, said Ms. Rubens ridiculed congressional investigators, saying they wanted to talk with people “discreetly” in a room and not meet with satisfied workers publicly.

The employee who is faced with dismissal said the whistleblowers told the two House members that they fear the inspector general’s recommendations will be ignored.

“We told them the recommendations are a joke, that 20 minutes of ‘retraining’ and telling managers not to shred claims or falsify data, or a slap-on-the-wrist ‘written reprimand’ in their files for three months will not change VA management’s broken culture of corruption,” the employee said. “We told the two congressmen that the only way to do so is to fire the corrupt managers to send the message that this behavior will not be tolerated by McDonald, and more so, the taxpayers. We need genuine accountability, not 35 bull–- recommendations that hold no one responsible,”

After meeting with VA managers in Philadelphia, Mr. Meehan said, he and Mr. Costello “didn’t get the answers we came for” on accusations that certain documents about the office’s performance were intentionally altered.

“Our veterans rely on this office to get the benefits they deserve, and those responsible for negligence or misconduct must be held accountable,” Mr. Meehan said in a statement. “I’m grateful for the courage of the whistleblowers who came forward to shine the spotlight on the VA’s activities — they should be commended for having the bravery to tell the truth to Congress and the American people.”

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