- The Washington Times - Monday, July 7, 2014

In one of the bizarre workplace complaints at the Department of Veterans Affairs in recent years, a VA nurse in Louisiana testified that a colleague threatened to tie her up, put her in the trunk of a car and drive her into a bayou, department records show.

The subsequent internal investigation substantiated “threats of bodily harm” against two nurses at a VA outpatient clinic in Alexandria, Louisiana, according to exhibits filed in a federal lawsuit by one of the employees, Melanie Taylor.

Beyond the details of the complaint, critics say the case raises troubling new questions about how the beleaguered VA handles abuses reported by internal whistleblowers.

Ms. Taylor’s suit accuses colleague Mary Andrus of making the threat and creating a hostile work environment. Ms. Andrus declined to comment when reached by phone Monday. Records show she was transferred to another outpatient facility.

The lawsuit was recently dismissed after both sides agreed to allow the VA to figure out damages administratively, and Ms. Taylor is free to refile the case in court if she’s dissatisfied with the award, according to her lawyer.

Dean Gregory, an attorney for Ms. Taylor, said the case provides a “great example of failure to act and retaliation” at the VA, at a time when congressional leaders are probing the agency’s treatment of whistleblowers.

The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs is holding a hearing Tuesday about VA employees who have faced harassment and firing for raising questions about mismanagement and negligence.

Mr. Gregory said the VA started an investigation into his client — and not Ms. Andrus — after Ms. Taylor filed her complaint about a hostile work environment.

For her part, Ms. Andrus denied making any threats against Ms. Taylor and another nurse, calling them “union bullies,” according to a memo summarizing the investigation completed last year.

Still, the memo concluded Ms. Andrus made threats against Ms. Taylor and two other nurses and “created a hostile work environment by calling co-workers derogatory names.”

At the same time, the VA’s administrative investigation board recommended that Ms. Andrus remain employed at an outpatient clinic in Jennings, Louisiana, where she was detailed after officials began investigating Ms. Taylor’s complaint.

Ms. Andrus was reached by phone at the Jennings clinic on Monday. Ms. Taylor also accused the VA of negligent hiring, saying in court records that Ms. Andrus was arrested in 2000 for “cruelty to the infirmed” in a previous job.

The records do not say whether Ms. Andrus was convicted, and she declined to discuss the question when reached Monday. She referred questions to Tammie Arnold, public affairs officer for the VA in Alexandria, Louisiana.

Ms. Arnold declined to discuss questions about the VA’s handling of Ms. Taylor’s complaint and referred the inquiry to a VA Freedom of Information Act specialist.

A spokeswoman for VA’s national public affairs office in Washington said officials were unable to provide information about the case to The Times by Monday.

Meantime, House members on Tuesday will hear other cases from whistleblowers who say they’ve faced retaliation for raising concerns about mismanagement and patient safety lapses.

Last month, Carolyn Lerner, head of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which investigated whistleblower complaints across government, told President Obama about a “troubling pattern” of substandard care at VA facilities. And, she added, whistleblower complaints haven’t always been properly investigated.

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